After a 55-year hiatus, the Nobel Prize in physics was awarded last week to Donna Strickland, only the third woman to receive the prize in 117 years, after Marie Curie (1903) and Maria Goeppert-Mayer (1963). Strickland’s news came a day after CERN, the world’s largest particle physics laboratory, suspended a senior researcher, Alessandro Strumia, for his questionable statements about women in science.
Speaking at a workshop in Geneva on gender and high energy physics, Strumia said that “physics was invented and built by men, it’s not by invitation” and that “the opposite assumption of identical brains is ideology”. The content of his talk, titled “Bibliometrics data about gender issues in fundamental theory”, has already been fully debunked by the high energy physics community, along with other high-profile scholars. His claims on gendered essential skills – men are rational and competitive while women are emotional and good at communication – are not only false in respect to the latest scientific evidences, but were also followed by personal attacks to some of the women attending the workshop.
Strumia’s case is not an isolated incident: it has only been an year since the leak of Google’s infamous sexist Manifesto, according to which the lack of women in tech and science is a consequence of innate differences between men and women.
In 2015, Nobel prize winner Sir Tim Hunt argued that “girls in labs” represent a “trouble”, since “three things happen when they are in the lab. You fall in love with them, they fall in love with you and when you criticise them, they cry”. Back in 2005, Lawrence Summers, then president of Harvard University, made a remark about biological differences in maths and sciences between men and women.
Similar episodes are unfortunately recurrent within the so-called STEM field (science, technology, engineering, and maths). The cultural bias is reflected in numbers: according to the Women in STEM workforce 2017 statistics, women still make up only 24% of all people employed in STEM industry, less than a quarter of the UK scientific workforce.
Encouraging access to STEM
Social bias and stereotypes on women’s skills play a great role in creating barriers to the scientific workplace. We must solicit the scientific culture to cultivate more inclusive learning environments and increase diversity. But how?
This research reveals that “science achievement gaps” begin in kindergarten and haunts kids until they are 14. Starting with a early exposure to science concepts helps them closing the gap and developing equal skills and competences.
“You can’t be what you can’t see”
Surrounding kids and young people with positive female role-models is essential to fight stereotypes. Luckily, much work is being done on this by retrieving the untold stories of women in the history of science. Have a look at these two books.
Be aware of gendered language
If we want to pursue gender equality, we must start looking at things that perpetuate gender inequality, and language is one of them. Often, masculine nouns and pronouns are often used with a generic function to refer to both men and women or, vice-versa, we automatically assume that the absence of gender indicators refers to men.
Find inclusive networks
Sexist culture won’t change overnight but there are many groups striving to eliminate bias in science: STEM Graduates put together a useful list of women in science organisations operating in UK.
Recognise multiple struggles
However, barriers of entry into STEM disciplines do not apply exclusively to women: very little research has considered the role that social bias and stereotypes play in creating barriers to the scientific workplaces for other underrepresented minorities such as people of colour, people with disabilities and the many intersections of all the aspects of one’s identity (e.g. religion, disability, social and economic status).
The understanding of what constitutes multiple discrimination, how it works and what its consequences are is essential in order to make long-lasting progress in the push for equality in science.
If you’re interested in a career in science, whatever your gender, why not sign up to Stay Nimble today to see if your attributes and skills can help you get there?
Author: Benedetta Catanzariti
Benedetta Catanzariti is a postgraduate research student in Science and Technology Studies at the University of Edinburgh. She is interested in AI and intersectional theory. You can find her on twitter at @techno_katt