Article by Gina Rippon, Professor of Neuroscience at Aston University

International Women and Girls in Science Day21st century science has a problem. It is short of scientists. Technological innovations mean that the world needs many more specialists in the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) subjects than it is currently training.

A report from the UK’s Royal Society in 2019 showed that the demand for data scientists has increased by nearly 300% over the last five years; the United States has identified a need to increase the number of STEM graduates by 34% to meet forecast demands. In addition, this problem is compounded by the fact that women, 49.7% of the world’s population, despite clear evidence of aptitude and ability for science subjects, are not choosing to study STEM subjects, are not being recruited into the STEM workforce, are not staying in the STEM workplace, are not succeeding in science. Gender gaps in science are startling – NSF data in 2016 show only 19% of computer science graduates in the US are female (down from 27% in 1997) with similar data for physics; in the UK, only 10.3% of engineering professionals and 16.4% of ICT professionals are women; globally, women account for less than a third (29.3%) of those employed in scientific research and development. If the world needs more scientists, then a good place to start would seem to be to find out why women don’t do science.

There is a long and fairly well-rehearsed ‘blame the brain’ story, with essentialist or biology-is-destiny type arguments historically asserting that women’s brains do not afford their owners the appropriate cognitive skills for science.  A newer spin on this is that female biology equates with a personality that is unsuited for the rigours of a science career and/or underpins preferences for working with people, incompatible with the allegedly ‘thing-like’ nature of science. This contemporary essentialist story can be found in discussions around what is known as The Gender Equality Paradox.

The Gender Equality Paradox – a new entry in an old playbook.

“As we see it, the so-called gender equality paradox is a new entry in an old playbook of arguing that biological sex differences, not social inequalities, drive the gender disparities we see in areas such as STEM.”

So what is the Gender Equality Paradox [GEP]? A paper published in 2018 reported the finding that women are more likely to be under-represented in the sciences in countries that have the highest levels of gender equality. This would appear to be at odds with claims that a lack of gender equality had been behind the lack of women in science; reducing the gender equality gaps should, therefore, have resulted in increasing numbers of women in science. Hence the paradox.

The authors had investigated STEM engagement between 2012 and 2015 in sixty-seven countries, reporting that fewer women than men were obtaining STEM degrees. They then linked this to the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Index [GGGI], reporting that in those countries where the gender gap was smallest (e.g. Finland, Norway, Sweden), the underrepresentation of women was highest. Performance scores on tests of scientific ability showed no female-male differences, so the dearth of women could not be pinned on some kind of cognitive deficit.

This ‘paradox’ was interpreted in a variety of ways. One was that in the least gender equal countries, STEM jobs were better paid and so economic necessity drove the choices of both sexes. So you chose to do science because you had to. But in more gender equal countries, economic factors could take second place to the choice of a subject which ‘played to your strengths’ and would be more likely to bring you a sense of ‘efficacy and joy’ (sic); life satisfaction could be given priority over economic necessity.

The ‘efficacy and joy’ effect was linked to the fact that, as well as all the performance measures indicating that females were as good as males at science, they also showed that females were almost universally better at reading and reading-related skills. And so, in the absence of the economic pressures which would drive females to a science career in less gender equal countries, Scandinavian girls could cheerfully turn their back on better-paid science [at which they were equally as good as boys]  and choose more poorly-paid, reading-based humanities-type subjects [because they were better than boys]. (Although the pay aspect might stand up to scrutiny, the inference of a disconnect between science skills and reading ability might well be worthy of discussion elsewhere).

There is a familiar whiff of biological determinism in the narrative exploring the findings. Reference is made to “endogenous interests” (undefined) in determining career choice, suggesting that a choice between science and humanities is somehow internally determined: “We hypothesize that men are more likely than women to enter STEM careers because of endogenous interests……. Societal conditions can change the degree to which exogenous interests influence STEM careers (e.g., the possibilities of STEM careers to satisfy socio-economic needs). But when there is an equal playing field [own emphasis] and studying STEM is just as useful (balancing income and career satisfaction) as a degree in other areas, people are better able to pursue their interests and not simply their future economic needs.” Reference is also made to other ‘paradoxical’ findings in more gender equal countries, for example that higher levels of sex differences in particular personality characteristics had been found in countries with the smaller gender gaps. The suggestion in that research was that “personality traits of men and women [are] less constrained and more able to naturally [own emphasis] diverge in developed nations”.

So the 21st century explanation of gender gaps in science is still linked to a ‘natural’ expression of some kind of innate differences. Recall, however, that the authors of the Gender Equality Paradox paper make reference to an “equal playing field”, based presumably on the assumption that the narrower a country’s gender gap, the more equal or level any ‘playing field’ might be for women in those countries. It is worth considering just how level the playing field is when it comes to the culture of STEM.

The Playing Fields of Science – a glass obstacle course for women.

“…..career pathways for women scientists and engineers are shaped by ideological and structural constraints, informal and formal biases, and active resistance or accommodation to them”.

It is well documented that, in previous centuries, women were proactively excluded from science and scientific institutions, leading inevitably to the stereotype of science being for men and scientists being male. Even as relatively recently as the 1950s, boys were being asked what kind of scientists they might like to be when they grew up, whereas girls were asked what kind of scientist they might like to marry. We may well have moved on from this kind of bias, but there is still clear evidence in the 21st century of covert (or even overt) elements within the culture of science that can form powerful barriers against women.

Having overcome early self- and other-generated ‘gatekeeping’ beliefs that science is for men, women may still encounter obstacles to entry. Gender bias has been found in the kind of references that may be written, with women more likely to be described as ‘pleasant and easy to get along with’ than ‘superb and exceptional’.  Experimental tasks have demonstrated that when identical CVs are attributed to either a female or a male, faculty appointment boards (including both males and females) are more likely to select the male candidate, offer him more money and greater mentoring opportunities.

There are many ways in which success is measured in science. Having worked around barriers to entry, women may then encounter gender bias on the roads to success. This can include first-author publications, citations, grant income, prizes. In all of these spheres, the operation of both conscious and unconscious bias against women is demonstrable.

With respect to publications, several studies have noted a marked gender imbalance, particularly in more prestigious journals, including those in the Nature portfolio. This does not appear to be related to quality, as there were no differences in rejection rates. A key factor appeared to be seniority, with more senior authors, of whom significantly more were male, having a higher output. Once published, a measure of a publication’s quality is how often it is cited. Again, there is evidence that papers with female key authors are cited less frequently. Two factors identified as relevant are that male scientists have wider and larger networks, where it is not uncommon that members cite each other; also that men are much more likely than women to cite themselves!

Some playing field unevenness is evident in the grant winning stakes too. One study of Scandinavian countries (noting that this would be classed as an area with the lowest gender gaps) showed that, in competing for post-doctoral fellowships, women had to be 2.5 times more productive than men to get the same score on a points-based system. Although overall success rates are proportionately comparable, there is evidence that women apply for less money and are less likely to apply for the largest grants. One telling finding is that, where grant reviewers were told to focus on the quality of the science rather than the scientist, sex differences were minimal; where they were asked to focus on the quality of the (same) scientists, men had a significantly higher chance than women of being rewarded the grants.

Gender imbalance in the receipt of prestigious prizes is the starkest reminder of how far science has yet to go to recognise success in female scientists, although there are, of course, centuries of history to counteract. In the Nobel awards, women are woefully under-represented, especially in Physics (1%), Chemistry (3%) and Medicine (12%). Nominations for Nobel prizes also tell a tale – between 1901-1964, of the 10,818 nominations for awards in physics, chemistry, medicine or physiology, just 98 were for women (and of these, only five, including Marie Curie, actually won awards – with Marie Curie getting two). Indeed, there is still evidence of a belief in some kind of ‘raw, innate, ability’ that is needed to endow the flash of genius required to win such prizes, and that this ability is characteristically male. The very recent announcement of two women being awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry is clearly a move in the right direction, although it was accompanied with a certain amount of breathless coverage of the rarity of such an occurrence. Early career awards suggest that the lack of female science Nobel laureates might not be solved by some kind of catch-up process over time; for example, only 19% of the Society for Neuroscience’s Young Investigator Awards have so far gone to women.

One of the social psychology theories referred to by the authors of the GEP paper is the expectancy-value theory. This identifies two categories of factors, which can influence whether or not you take on a challenge. One of these is task values – your interest in what the task entails, or how useful you perceive undertaking this task might be to you. An implicit aspect of the interpretation of the GEP data is that gender equality can allow a freer choice among values, your choice not being driven by economic necessity – you can make your choice based on what you might prefer to do, not what you have to do. But what about expectancies, specifically expectancies of success? As we have seen above, there is clear evidence that it is the men in science who get the prestige and the prizes (and the higher salaries), which could well be as much of a negative driver for females making career choices as any alleged Thing-like quality of such careers.

The Chilly Climate Effect – reintroducing the brain.

As well as the bases of uniquely human skills such as language and creativity, our brains are wired to make us social. A sense of belonging is a powerful motivational force, with negative social experiences linked to the same brain areas activated by real physical pain. Specialised networks of brain activity have been associated with the maintenance of self-esteem and the consequences of a loss of such esteem. Social rejection, low status, poor self-image and low levels of peer support have been shown to activate powerful inhibitory pathways in the brain associated with anxiety and depression and high levels of self-criticism. Behaviourally, this has been shown to result in a form of academic self-silencing and withdrawal.

It is possible then, that the absence of women from science is indeed a brain problem, but not one to do with internally determined, individual cognitive capacity but one to do with externally determined social engagement.  Contemporary essentialist views allow consideration of the brain-changing effects of external and not just internal factors and how these can, indeed, affect preferences and performance. The link between brains and their world is not a one-way street.

Confronted with an institution which views them as probably inferior, possibly incompetent, (ideally, indeed, invisible), brain-driven processes may well determine that women will take their skills elsewhere.  So a level (and welcoming) playing field does indeed seem to be important for the engagement and retention of well-qualified female scientists – and science needs to wake up to the fact that its playing fields are neither level nor welcoming.

The shortfall in recruiting and retaining women in science arises from a complex entanglement of brains and experiences, stereotypes and self-belief, culture and politics, conscious and unconscious bias. To eliminate gender gaps we need to address the issue of place as well as people, and genuinely ensure an equal playing field for all.

There is currently an ongoing debate about how the authors generated the data that came up with this conclusion. An unorthodox way of measuring science choice mixed with a somewhat personalised tweak of the GGGI suggests that their correlational data may not anyway be telling such a clear-cut story. Nevertheless, the essentialist rhetoric in their discussion is an interesting example of a newly emerging narrative round sex differences and gender gaps.


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