If you ask any random person down the street, which is the mental image they have about a scientist, what do you think they would answer? What is your own personal idea of a scientist? Is it a young, promising female researcher in, say, applied mathematics? Or is it a gray-hair male professor in theoretical physics? Maybe a 15 year-experienced laboratory (lady) chief? A respectable bearded old man head of a psychology department? Is your image in white or is it colorful?
Science, unfortunately, as many other things in life, is not a prejudice-free area. Though it encourages some of the better qualities of human race, such as a selfless search for knowledge, or the understanding among different people for a greater cause rather than for personal benefit, or the innovation of technologies to make people’s life easier, it also sometimes reflects some of our worst mistakes.
Common believe lies upon the idea that until very recently, there didn’t exist female scientists who actually made world-changing contributions to science and technology. Though woman in science were not the majority in past times, there is a great deal of names that we should rescue from the trunk of memories.
Why, you may ask. Well, first because many of them never got the credit for their work or the proper reward they deserved. But second, and more importantly is because our young girls need females models to identify with, to overcome the idea that science is only a male-dominated business, in which they have no voice or future.
A canonical example of a long-time ignored female scientist, is the German mathematician Emmy Noether, whose contributions to abstract algebra and theoretical physics were fundamental for the development of those areas at the beginning of the XXth century. Noether’s theorem, which allows to derive conserved quantities from symmetries, is today widely used in many areas of physics, such as quantum physics or astrophysics. The very Einstein considered her one of the most important mathematicians of our history, yet she was never allowed to take up a full faculty position at Göttingen University, where she conducted most of her research and she had to give classes under the name of the department’s director.
One may think that, with the passing of time, things have improved but sadly, the list of women who had been (or currently are) unfairly recognized in the history science is long. A modern example is the exclusion of Dr. Jocelyn Bell for winning the Nobel Prize in Physics, despite having been the first person to observe and precisely analyse radio pulsars. Her advisor and another male academic won the prize in 1974. These are just two examples, but there are plenty (check this link to know about other unrecognized women in science). Saving the names of all these women from oblivion, including them in our textbooks, in our social imaginary is essential if we aim for a truly equal society.
A disheartening study published only a few weeks ago and conducted by Opinionway for the L’Oreal Foundation, has shown that approximately the 67% of the Europeans (including females) think that women do not posses the necessary abilities to make a career in science. The study reflects that one of the main reasons argued for the alleged lack of abilities, is a primary absence of interest in science. Indeed, it is quite disturbing to learn that the majority of the European population actually believes women have no interest in science at all, since intrinsic injustices preventing women from reaching high positions in basically any field of Academia, are concealed by this line of reasoning.
Countries like Germany or France, for instance, have less than 30% of female researchers, as it has been reported by the UNESCO’s Institute for Statistics. Curiously enough, countries such as Bolivia or Venezuela, have 63% and 56% of female researches, respectively. Comparing the numbers from country to country, it seems only fair to point out that the supposed lack of interest might highly depend on other factors rather than biology.
Following this argumentation, we find several studies using international data on school mathematics performance, opposing the common assumption about gender and math achievement, in particular, the idea that girls and women have less ability due to an innate difference. In a major study carried out at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the researchers involved came to the conclusion that ‘‘None of our findings suggest that an innate biological difference between the sexes is the primary reason for a gender gap in math performance at any level. Rather, these major international studies strongly suggest that the math-gender gap, where it occurs, is due to sociocultural factors that differ among countries, and that these factors can be changed.” (Jonathan M. Kane and Janet E. Mertz. Debunking Myths about Gender and Mathematics Performance. Notices of the American Mathematical Society, Dec. 12, 2011).
Our societies need to leave the old preconceptions behind and start thinking about strategies to motivate girls into liking science and support young female scientists who encounter many obstacles, and sometime really hostile work environments, in their paths towards high-level scientific positions.
An important initiative to create awareness among Europeans, is the promising campaign called Change The Numbers launched by L’Oreal which is putting a strong emphasis on the encouragement of young girls to pursue a degree in science or technology. In the past years, similar attempts are materializing to inspire young girls to dream out with a bright future in science, or at least, to help them give up the misconception that technical jobs are not made for them. An interesting program working in this direction since 2001 is the Girl’s day. German authorities, aware of the sparse numbers of females in their scientific institutions, have come up with the idea of establishing a dedicated day during which thousands of teenage girls across the country visit technical universities, research labs and institutes to familiarize with the scientific and technical world, get in contact with researches of different areas and imagine the (very cool) jobs they can have when they grow up.
Another stimulating exercise, is the recently-founded company Goldie Blox, which designs construction toys for girls with the aim of getting them passionate about engineering and eliminate the pink stereotype surrounding girls’ toys. Our girls deserve more is the motto used by this firm, that has been successful in reigniting the debate on non-gender toys and rising social awareness towards the, undeniable, influence that current toys may have on the aspirations of young girls (that is, becoming moms or beauty queens instead of doctors, scientists or engineers).
As a follow-up of this debate, the well-known toy company LEGO decided to create three mini-figures depicting female researchers: an astronomer, a paleontologist, and a chemist, to give visibility to women working in science. The brand is contemplating other appealing designs such as a robotics engineer, a mechanic and a geologist.
These efforts, and many others are happening around the globe, surely contribute to break current stereotypes against women in science. However, the task seems a challenging one when even male researchers have this kind of prejudices still hidden deep-down their minds. Caltech astrophysicist Shrinivas Kulkarni, referred early this year to scientists as “boys with toys”. The immediate response to his sexist comment was a viral twitter campaign showing many female scientists at their work stations, controlling sophisticated scientific instruments. #girlswithtoys was a good example that humor can be another way to fight discrimination.
People must realize that women and girls care about science. They are social conventions and long-established stereotypes which convince them of not being good enough for it. We need to surpass the irrational belief that women are not sufficiently smart to do science, and understand that we are as capable as anyone to conduct a mayor research project, to make prodigious discoveries, to design heavy machinery for industry, to be responsible for the R&D department of a private company, or, essentially, to accomplish anything we dream of.
And to win the battle of equality in science, it is mandatory to empower more women into high academic positions, so our societies watch them doing meaningful contributions to science and, more importantly, hear them speaking about it. Giving interviews in public media, attending high-level conferences, giving public outreach talks, being the ones who talk and discuss about scientific progress is fundamental to change the present situation. It is time for women to begin telling about science and explaining it to the community. It is time for girls to feel that science is a new world they can explore and be excellent at, that science can be a very important and rewarding part of their identities.
As beautifully said by Physiology and Medicine Nobel Prize winner, Rita Levi- Montalcini: “After centuries of dormancy, young women … can now look toward a future moulded by their own hands.”
Sandra Benitez Herrera is an Spanish astrophysicist based in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. She earned her Ph.D in Astrophysics from the Technical University of Munich and worked at the Max-Planck Institute for Astrophysics in supernova cosmology until 2014. Currently she holds a science communication position at the Museum of Astronomy of Rio de Janeiro. She is also an active member of the GalileoMobile outreach project since 2011.