Jenny Gristock

Jenny Gristock

storytelling, with data

Science 2.0

Why are so few women writing scientific papers? It is a question that is being asked in New Scientist magazine this week, as it highlights a study which shows female authorship of scientific papers going backwards. A US study – published in the British Medical Journal – has found that since 2009, the proportion of women as lead authors has gone down, not up.

Findings like these usually provoke the ‘More girls in science!’ response: organisations wheel out a spokesperson to explain why we need more girls studying science at school and university. This month, for example, both the Welsh Government and Soapbox Science have done this. They aren’t wrong. But they aren’t right, either.

The problem with the rallying cry, ‘Let’s get more girls doing science’ is that although it is a fantastic way of persuading science funding bodies to reach into their pockets, it just doesn’t fit with the data. Women are doing science. And not only ‘more women than ever before’, as New Scientist puts it. The quiet truth is this: in lots of scientific subjects, women outnumber men.

Here are the data. In the UK, 69% students studying medical technology related degrees are women, as are 86% of those studying degrees in polymers. A whopping 77% of students studying veterinary science are female. The figure for psychology is even higher at 79%. The majority of students studying degrees in anthropology (72%); ophthalmics (69%); anatomy, physiology and pathology (64%); zoology (63%); forensic & archaeological sciences (61%); astronomy; pharmacology, toxicology & pharmacy (61%) are female.

More women than men study clinical dentistry (59%); clinical medicine (55%); biology (58%); molecular biology, biophysics & biochemistry (54%); archaeology (56%); and ’agriculture and related subjects’ (67%).

The story in the same, even in subjects like genetics (57%) and microbiology (56%). For programmes classed as ‘other courses in medicine & dentistry’, the percentage of female students is even higher, at 76%.

New Scientist says the US researchers pinpointed this decline in female authorship in the top 6 medical journals, including the British Medical Journal and the Lancet. The proportion of women listed as lead author has “plateaued” in recent years and has declined since 2009.

So how do we explain that?

This is unlikely to be simply about the number of women studying medicine. Women have accounted for more than half of all new medical students since the 1990s. Today, even at postgraduate level, 64% of students studying medical and dentistry subjects are female.

New Scientist blames the ‘choice’ to have a family. It points to a study in this month’s American Economic Review which shows that women incur earnings penalties in science if they have children. A recent House of Commons report goes into more detail; it says that scientific research careers are dominated by short term contracts with poor job security at the very time that women need to have children (if they want them). The female postdoctoral scientist faces difficult decisions with very little in the way of institutional support. Women should not have to choose between career and family, says the science magazine. But surely male scientists face similar choices?

Social science research has shown that male and female scientist parents suffer differently in this scenario because they often have different types of partners: male scientists more frequently have a stay-at-home partner looking after the children, whilst female scientists are more likely to have another scientist as a spouse. Male scientists might not need family-friendly working practices to have a successful career*, but female scientists do. Hence the ‘leaky pipeline‘, where high student numbers at university do not translate to equal participation in scientific careers.

Does this matter? It does. Because this is a world where women drivers were killed by car airbags that were designed for male bodies (at speeds of only 20mph, breasts close to the wheel pushed the airbag up towards the neck); where scientists waited 20 years to tell parents to put their babies to sleep on their backs to avoid cot death  (costing over 60,000 lives worldwide); and where the anatomy of the clitoris is forgotten on a regular basis (indeed, we can’t even say the word ‘clitoris’ without raising eyebrows). Yes, female participation in science and technology really matters.

Small wonder, then, that the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee argues that the usual emphasis on inspiring girls into science careers is not enough, saying ‘Efforts are wasted if women are subsequently disproportionately disadvantaged in scientific careers compared to men’.

And yet we still hear the rallying cry: ‘We need more women in science”. For example, this year alone, UNESCO, the Welsh Government, and initiatives like ‘Soapbox Science‘ (at the South Bank this week) have all bemoaned the lack of representation of women in science. Whilst this is still true for many countries and subjects, organisations are nevertheless much more vocal about the need to recruit women into science than they are about what needs to be done to retain females in science after graduation.

rare article in this Month’s issue of the Journal ‘Science’ might explain why this is so; after detailing shocking examples of discrimination and misogyny – from inappropriate discussions about rape and female anatomy; to colleagues’ failure to acknowledge female expertise – the author writes “It may be too much to ask women in science organizations to change misogynist culture in a world that remains misogynistic.”

Yes, we need more women, and initiatives like Soapbox Science are valuable for widening people’s ideas of who scientists can be. But the repeated public calls ‘more women in science’ are the result of politics; it is simply much easier for a lobby group to say “we need more women in science” than it is to stand up, look the (mostly male) leaders in science and Government in the eye and say, “Your laboratories, hiring procedures, grant-allocating processes and publishing routines are all sexist, and this results in science and technologies that aren’t good for at least half the population. How can you allow this to continue?”

Jenny Gristock is a freelance science writer. This article appeared in The Guardian on 31 May 2016.

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Jenny Gristock

Jenny Gristock is an award-winning science writer and editor.

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Jenny Gristock is an award-winning science writer and editor.

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