Science: why isn’t it a woman thing?

20120622-225727.jpgScience. It’s a girl thing. We know that because the EU has swapped the “I” in “science” for a fuchsia lipstick and made a promo that looks like a Boots ad. Here come the girls, and they’re doing SCIENCE. Or if not science, certainly pouting in the vicinity of a Perspex beaker, which is almost near enough.

The girl thing campaign would be a clumsy effort to solve the problem of girls’ engagement in science, if that problem existed. But according the EU’s own press release for the campaign, the gender imbalance in science affects women – not girls:

Women represent more than half the students [in science, technology, engineering and maths] across the 27-nation European Union and 45 per cent of all doctorates but account for only one third of career researchers, the European Commission said.

If more than half of science students are female, doesn’t that suggest that the lack of lipstick in science isn’t any sort of a bar at all to girls pursuing the discipline? Seeing other women in scientific careers can be hugely inspirational – I read the Marie Curie entry in my First Encyclopaedia Of Chemistry till I about wore the ink off, and the young female scientists featured in the short biographical films that are also part of the EU project have the great advantage of being A) alive now, and B) not dead from self-sacrificial radiation poisoning.

I appreciate the value of role models. But if women are getting scarcer in science as the science gets more professional, maybe the problem isn’t that they can’t imagine strutting high-heeled through a lab: maybe the problem is with science as a profession.

Assuming that the EU’s figures are reliable, shouldn’t it be asking what happens between degree level and workplace to make the women fade away? Is it that, as in many professions, female fertility is punished? If you’re entering a career that requires lengthy qualifications, you’ll probably be in your 30s when you’re looking for your first job, and crappy employer attitudes to family could well force women to choose whether to have a baby and fall behind compared to male colleagues, or gamble their fertility and maybe never be able to get pregnant.

And even if you’re a woman of childbearing age who doesn’t want to have a baby, employers may still judge you as inconveniently liable to get pregnant – and discriminate against you accordingly. (I recently had lunch with a medic who told me that one of the professors in a specialism she was interested in pursuing had told her, unambiguously and unapologetically, that if she got pregnant there was no place for her in his lab.)

This sort of sexism is built into our labour structures, and not just in science. It’s a product of a tyrannical culture of presenteeism, which says work can always claim precedence over home. It’s a product of the unrelenting gendering of parenting, by which men’s contributions are patronised and devalued while women are shunted into the role of “natural” care giver.

And it’s a product of a culture that – rather than try to fix any of these difficult, systemic problems – would prefer to pretend that the issue is one of whether women want to enter science at all, rather than whether there’s something pushing them out. The EU’s data makes the whole Girl Thing project redundant. The real problem is why science isn’t a woman thing.

Text © Sarah Ditum; still taken from Science: It’s A Girl Thing! trailer

21 thoughts on “Science: why isn’t it a woman thing?

  1. I work in science, so just wanted to add a bit of anecdata.

    My team (approx 40 people) is over 50% female. We hire more women than men and we’d be flayed alive if there was any suggestion that we didn’t hire a woman because she might become pregnant. We have, on average, a pregnancy every year to 18 months.

    It’s often the case that women leave after having a baby and don’t come back. Whether any of them go back to working in science again elsewhere, I’m not sure.

    I’m well aware that I’ve got an unusually progressive employer and I’m sure maths and engineering environments are different, but I think the loss of female graduates is more of a societal problem (lack of support for women attempting to have children while remaining in work) than a problem with the science profession per se.

  2. I think the loss of female graduates is more of a societal problem (lack of support for women attempting to have children while remaining in work) than a problem with the science profession per se.

    I think exactly this. Having kids and both parents working full-time is crazy-making: childcare is flaky and expensive, schools work on the assumption that mum will be at the schoolgate, and employers work on the assumption that you’ll always be available.

    When I went freelance, I effectively went part time. Most women with young children who do my job (in magazine publishing) go part time, and their careers stall at that point. It’s not just a science thing.

  3. Based on what I’ve seen in close family, “female fertility is punished” would seem pretty close to the mark. Not unique to science by any means, but certainly seems to be a serious issue for it – at least in the context of academic research, where there seems to be an expectation that you will work all hours God sends, with part time/flexible working being seen as completely incompatible with carrying out research.

    That’s only anecdotal and based on a very small sample, but it means your post did ring a lot of bells.

  4. I’ve had the opposite experience of going freelance – I’m now close to full time again. But yes, I went part time when Harry was born and my career stopped still.

    A medic friend of mine was told “you have to choose what to give up”, “you can’t do this job with a baby” and best of all “this is why you should never employ a woman!” That last one was apparently a joke but still shocking. Strangely enough her husband is also a medic and no one asks what he’s going to give up…

  5. Re: motherhood (and fatherhood) and the consequences thereof… There’s a white paper looking at the perceived differences between mothers and fathers, and how a (arguably slightly less) skewed work/life balance works in favour for fathers, while a (statistically speaking more) skewed work/life balance is penalised in mothers. Study is nicely summarised in these blogposts (also holds the link to the white paper:

    It made me a bit sick to my stomach to read it, so, naturally, one has to share :)

  6. That research is grim, and does suggest that male “breadwinner” and female “caregiver” stereotypes are incredibly hard to overcome. I’ve heard “I know you’ve got kids, it’s hard, but…” from employers expecting more lates, work on weekends and so on – almost as if the perception that you can’t do those things increases the need for employers to demand you prove yourself.

  7. There is one element missing in this discussion: if women want to excel in their careers, then they must, of necessity, be married (or partnered)n with a man who will assume a greater role in the domestic sphere. Thus, said man will be foregoing his own career, and be earning less.

    Question: do women truly find men attractive who stay at home, dusting and cleaning, and working part-time as say, a freelance blogger/artist?

    Don’t you think, Sarah, you should look in the mirror and honestly ask this question?

  8. Do I find it attractive when a man is capable of attending to his own basic needs and contributing to the running of the household? Yes. Yes I do. There you go, that was easy.

  9. Every time I think of a man dusting or cleaning, it makes me dry-heave! I could never allow such an abomination into the temple of my home.

  10. No, you didn’t get it. But let’s try again, this time focusing on the ‘earning less money than you’ part. Oh believe me, I get that we all want someone who contributes to the running of the household, but this doesn’t have any bearing on what a woman is sexually attracted to. So let’s try again, and see if we can ferret out some subtle hypocrisy:

    How attracted are you to unambitious men – of equal or lower status to you – who spend large parts of their day not in the workforce, but rather, toiling around the household? If you have no issues with this, then I applaud you, but you are the exception. In fact, if this is you, then you are a saint. I know a few couples that have this arrangement – she has a more powerful career than he. But it’s usually a disaster, with the woman feeling as though she is being cheated.

    The point I am making is, if you want to devote yourself totally to career advancement, you will have to find some way to become sexually attracted to a man who is not culturally powerful, and thus has ample time to raise your children while you are working.

  11. No, I do get it: you have assumptions about what women desire and you refuse to accept it when women tell you they feel otherwise. By the way, it’s perfectly possible for partners to divvy up the responsibilities of parenthood without one of them being “supported” by the other, particularly when employment structures allow for more flexibility.

  12. Hi Shmiggen,

    I’m a natural ally of yours. I’m a privately educated, straight, white, male professional. My girlfriend earns twice what I do, and I couldn’t be more thrilled. Unconditionally.

    Now, not every man feels like I do. But not every man feels like you do, either. So I’m afraid you have no right to speak for others, and if you do, you’ll simply be ignored.

  13. Another one for Shmiggen.

    Over the years, sometimes I’ve earned more than my husband, sometimes I’ve earned less. At the moment I think I earn fractionally more. I can honestly say that the amount I’m attracted to him has never gone up or down with his or my salary.

    At far as ‘domestic work’ is concerned, from the moment we moved in together we’ve shared all housework equally, and since our son was born we’ve shared all childcaring responsibilities equally. The fact is, I would not have been attracted to, still less would I have married, someone who thought that doing things any other way was reasonable. It’s attitudes like yours that are deathly unattractive.

  14. I’m currently really attracted to someone who, I think, shares my anger that I’m not as “culturally powerful” as he is, based simply on which genitals we were born with. I work 11 hour days & earn a lot, he writes freelance from home and pointed out that I’d never once taken the recycling out before his last press trip. We’re childless because I don’t want my own right now – I don’t see it as gambling my fertility, I have other priorities and if my childbearing years pass without issue, well, at least I didn’t have a child just for the sake of it & find out that I resent the compromises I’ve made for it.

    Sarah’s telling you something that you don’t believe, but rather than listening & taking onboard anything that contradicts your misoginy, you’re telling her she missed your point. That’s rather a patronising, “I know better than you” attitude to take when you’re asking someone what they want. Are we to assume you like women “in their place”?

  15. Shmiggen – one obvious answer to your contention that women are only attracted to men who spend their time away from the home and earning is the research which shows that married/partnered men who do their fair share of domestic work have more sex.

  16. Oh no, I believe you when you say you are attracted to the men you are with. I just don’t believe you when you say you will stay attracted to them, and the numbers support me – not you. Women do indeed initiate the majority of divorce, and that is a fact. That is why feminism is a zero-sum game, not positive sum. And herein lies the hypocrisy. What you call misogyny I call misandry; it is you who wish to keep men in their place. You want to blame men or society for your failure: the failure to advance your career when a child is born. The failure to have a child while you were advancing your career. The fact you cannot have both rankles you, but it is your problem, not anyone’s else’s. Take ownership of it – that is what an adult does.

  17. Children are a product of two people, and different cultures have different norms about how the work of raising a child is divided. The norms *we as a society* (please note I’ve never said “men do this to women”, and only your prejudice can explain you reading it that way) are in my opinion bad for families – men (who are deprived of close relationships with children) and women (who are deprived of achievement and independence). You’ve given no evidence to support your contentions, and your comments carry a strong smell of grudge, as well as grotesque presumptuousness about other people’s lives.

  18. No, they are direct, whereas your comments smell of faux outrage. You want me to believe your cause is a moral one (to help women advance in their careers) but it isn’t, because career advancement is not a moral cause, it’s a sexual one. And therein lies the hidden truth, which is what you are trying so hard to conceal. One need furnish no evidence when it is self-evident what career advancement really is: power and options.

    Now I would have no problem were you to be forthright and simply state this is what you are talking about, rather than the usual feminist boilerplate about ‘different cultures have different norms’, etc. Just be honest, that’s all. You want power. Take a look in the mirror and say it, you’ll feel better.

  19. Yeah, god forbid a woman should have power and/or options, eh? If you let that happen, next thing you know, they’d be aspiring to have relationships that were mutually beneficial partnerships of equals. The horror, the horror.

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