A celebration of women not being seen as the problem

Women in sci

Photograph: copyright Cavendish Laboratory

Today is International Women’s Day, 101 years old this year. This celebrates women in all walks of life and should remind us both of the many women from around the world who can inspire future generations and also those suffering or disadvantaged for whatever reason. Let me use this day not to remind readers of all the negative aspects surrounding “women in science”, of which there are many – just as in business or law or any of the other professions. No, let me for once celebrate the progress that is slowly being made in the changing culture of the academic lab, which should ultimately allow many more men and women to succeed, to feel they belong and so to contribute to both research outcomes and (directly or indirectly) to the country’s economic strength.

For too many women, for too long, life as a serious scientist has seemed unobtainable or, perhaps worse, so unpleasant that they have no desire to battle on; they give up the good fight in increasing numbers as they move along the ladder. It isn’t usually a case of overt discrimination; it isn’t even something as simple to fix as provision of good childcare, although that can help. Rather the problems often lie in the small things that discourage and ultimately drive out too many potential stars. All surveys show that across the disciplines the numbers fall steadily, sometimes dramatically, as you progress up the career ladder, regardless of the starting proportion of undergraduates setting out (which varies from less than 30% women in physics to over 60% in biology). At professorial level the numbers are pitiful even in biology, where there are fewer than 20% women.

It is very easy to get angry about this and rightly so. So what do I think is worth celebrating? What I think has changed is that we are beginning to move on from a situation where women are seen as the problem to one where the culture is seen as the major issue. It isn’t that long ago that a very supportive colleague of mine suggested that maybe I should take voice-coaching to teach me how to lower my voice so I was more effective in meetings. I took it in the friendly spirit intended but I was outraged by the suggestion. If talking rubbish in a low, gravelly voice is seen as better than talking (I hope) sense in a higher tone, then it isn’t surprising that so many committees make bad decisions. That sort of ‘advice’ aligns with the deficit model: that it is the women who need fixing and then they can fit right in with the norm, i.e. the men. But I do think this sort of approach is beginning to fade and with it some of the many microinequities that have added up to the major inequalities we are too used to seeing.

Additionally we are beginning to collect the explicit evidence of how the inherent culture we are brought up in affects everyone’s behaviour, men and women. Scientists like evidence, as I was reminded in a recent meeting on gender issues. Here, the head of one of my university’s science departments was trying to claim that they had been trying hard for years to appoint and promote more women and the numbers were still dismal. What evidence was there, he asked, that women were being systematically disadvantaged when everyone was trying so hard? I pointed him to a recent publication in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) which showed how, when presented with literally identical CVs but labelled with male or female names, the ‘women’ fared worse than the ‘men’ when the question was posed ‘would you hire this person and at what salary?’ (Fellow blogger Jenny Rohn wrote about this paper earlier.) Men and women faculty alike exhibited unconscious bias against female CVs. Presented with this evidence, the head of department instantly realised the problem was different and more subtle than he had appreciated.

That PNAS paper has been a wake-up call for many. We are all prone to unconscious bias, a point made in one of this week’s series of articles in Nature on women in science; this isn’t about women slagging off men (or vice versa), we are all potentially liable to exhibit this sort of behaviour. Recognizing this is the first step to overcoming the failing; it moves from being ‘unconscious’ to ‘conscious’ and then something can be done. As this recognition becomes pervasive I am encouraged to believe we will see adjustments to how recruitment and promotion is done.

The next stage will be a wider appreciation that, just because an individual may approach a problem in a way that is seen as unusual, it doesn’t mean it is wrong; in other words, women don’t ‘lack’ anything fundamental to being a good scientist. For the less than over-confident male this may be just as helpful as for the stereotypical woman who doesn’t like to put herself forward. For researchers of either sex who prefer team-working to attempting to become a solo leading light, this too may be beneficial. Rewarding bullish, even aggressive characters because they can make a lot of noise and sound as if they know what they are talking about is not really good for science, but too often it can happen.

Recently reading a whole bunch of reference letters for quite senior scientists, most of whom were male as were most of the writers (inevitably), I was struck by phrases that I don’t think I’d have seen a decade ago, about how various individuals were perceived as modest, quiet, undemonstrative or private (words written in terms of admiration) just as often as they were described as controversial or behaving like a megalomaniac (when it was clear these were not intended as complimentary terms!). This is healthy too if it means the domineering and self-serving character is no longer equated with someone who deserves to get on.

So, our society may still struggle with issues around the gendering of what is instilled in our children from the earliest years – be it dissecting worms or taking risks – but maybe there is a better appreciation about how to ensure that talented men and women can both succeed in scientific careers. We don’t need a ‘macho’ culture (that word encompasses actions by both men and women in my book), we don’t need overbearing behaviour to trump skill, and we do need to recognize that there are many different ways of approaching scientific challenges. For the good of our nation and the wise-spending of you, the tax-payer’s money, let us ensure that the ‘best’ can succeed at science, whatever the best may look like and particularly when it isn’t simply a clone of what preceding generations have looked like. Today, on International Women’s Day, let us celebrate the progress that I believe is being made and hope that in years to come no one considers the topic of ‘women in science’ interesting enough to be worthy of comment on such a day as this.

Athene Donald is a Professor of Experimental Physics at the University of Cambridge and tweets as @athenedonald

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