'The role of women in science isn't well enough understood. We need to change perceptions'

10th March 2015 at 10:50

Professor Sarah-Jayne Blakemore of the developmental group at University College London’s (UCL) Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience and her research assistant, Emily Garrett, a medical student at UCL, write:

When Rosalind Franklin (pictured) died of cancer in 1958, aged just 37, her vital contribution to the discovery of the structure of DNA had not been fully recognised, but she is now remembered as one of Britain’s most important scientists.

Her memory also lives on through the Royal Society Rosalind Franklin Award, which supports the promotion of women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.  Such awards are vital, because, despite the many achievements and increasing numbers of female scientists, a quarter of the population cannot name a single one, living or dead. Why is it so hard? Part of the answer may lie in the way young people learn about science and scientists at school. Antiquated stereotypes about science may also play a role. We have tried to contribute towards changing this through the establishment of a new educational website for secondary school children who are interested in science: thescientific23.com

The research focus of our developmental group at the UCL Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience is the development of the teenage brain. We look specifically at the establishment of teenage-typical behaviours such as risk-taking and peer influence. We try to understand the biology behind these behaviours by carrying out studies that involve asking teenagers questions and studying images of their brains with MRI scanners.

The lab’s work involves spending time in schools with teenagers. Something that often surprises us during these visits is the prevailing misconception among school children and adolescents that professors of science must surely be men. This is an opinion that is not assumed in isolation amongst the younger generation; it is a belief held by many, regardless of age or occupation. This is surprising because there are now many female professors of science and their prevalence is increasing. Perhaps this is more obvious to us because we work in science with them; it may be that they are less visible in schools or to the general public than their male colleagues, who have the advantage of many decades of publicity and centuries of scientific history behind them.

Prior to the 20th century, female scientists tended to be presented as having supported their male colleagues, rather than as pioneers of their own right. It is difficult to determine whether this was through their own choice, arising from the values of society, a lack of female empowerment, or because they really didn’t do as much as their male colleagues. However, recent history has seen major changes for women in the UK, who can now vote, receive the same education as their male peers, enter almost any career and choose to stay in it if they wish to, with or without a husband and children. Over the same period the number of female scientists has risen.

Lagging behind this increase in female scientists, however, is a transformation of old-fashioned preconceptions about science, which continues to be regarded as traditionally male. In addition to this, it is reported that women in science still receive less pay, fewer promotions and fewer grants than their male counterparts. Perhaps their roles in science are also less well publicised, and consequently less well acknowledged; recent studies have highlighted that although about half of those who receive doctoral degrees in science in the US and Europe are women, less than a fifth of professors in the field are female.

This figure has increased in the past century, but it implies that something is still hindering many female scientists and raises a question about the presence of gender bias. One way to overcome this is to ensure that women do not assume that science is "male", but continue to enter scientific careers and strive to receive equal recognition to men. Through publicising the achievements of female scientists we can demonstrate that this is possible.

Another major challenge for science in the 21st century is to ensure that today’s young people know that being a scientist is a fulfilling and exciting career option for men and women alike. Contemporary media and literature increasingly emphasises the diversity of modern science: it is not a career dominated by socially-challenged "geeks" hiding away in labs with test tubes and white coats – scientific jobs are varied and exciting. Different scientific occupations require different combinations of attributes, knowledge and expertise. Scientists today work in hospitals, universities, politics, museums, industry and in the media. As children and young people become aware of the many career options created by science, an almost limitless future of opportunities opens up to them.

When Rosalind Franklin Award was given to one of us [Blakemore] in 2013, we therefore decided to use the funding it provided to create a website about the lives of modern scientists, both men and women, to show teenagers that studying science at school or university can lead to many different careers. We wanted the website to reflect the full range of different scientists, of all ages and stages, from a variety of fields, as well as people who work in science-related subjects such as science policy, science funding and science media.

Together we set about interviewing a selection of leading scientists to find out what they do, what inspired them, and what makes them tick, including the best and worst aspects of their jobs. Each interview consists of questions submitted to the lab by teenagers, so that we can target the information we provide to their specific needs and interests. The website is called The Scientific 23 because each interviewee is asked 23 questions. (Coincidentally, 23 is an interesting number for many reasons: it is a prime number, we have 23 chromosomes, and it is the width of the Arecibo message).

The website was launched at the beginning of February with 16 interviews, and we now have 18. We hope to have 40 by the end of the year. So far, interviewees have included doctors such as Lord Robert Winston, clinical psychologists like Professor Tanya Byron, science broadcasters such as Professor Jim Al-Khalili and research scientists like Dame Athene Donald. We have also interviewed people who work in science policy, science journalism and science education.

We hope that the website will be used as a resource to provide secondary school students – as well as older teenagers and adults – with an insight into different scientific professions, and in doing so encourage more young people to consider choosing science. This is particularly relevant to girls, since half of the interviewees are women.


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