This month the CTM team are thinking about gender discrimination, after a recent episode was reported at Google. The report on Google can be read here. Here’s what our columnist had to say about gender discrimination.
What If Girls Want To Be Scientists?
“No one is born, but rather becomes a woman” said Simone de Beauvoir in the first half of the XX century. According to the French philosopher, writer, and activist, there’s a gender social construction that determines how women act and react. The controversial memo of a Google Engineer, arguing that biological differences are the reason for women’s underrepresentation in Science and Technology isn’t in keeping with that.
A certain part of what human beings are is in their DNA, but social interaction creates the rest. Societies decide people behaviour and the existing referents. The lack of female scientific referents is an issue from the beginning. While boys have a wide spectrum of figures in all fields, girls can’t find real and inspirational referents. Except for Marie Curie, women are underrepresented in science text books. Unsurprisingly, our mind becomes androcentric, and when reading “Lehmann discontinuity” or “Noether’s theorem”, the first thought is that they were men. But no, Lehmann’s name was Inge and Noether’s, Emmy.
Marie Curie remains a scientific model and she is worthily mentioned everywhere. Marie Curie was a physicist and a chemist, she researched about radiation, discovered Polonium and Radium, was awarded two Nobel Prizes within seven years (1903 and 1911) and received Davy Medal (1903), Matteucci Medal (1904) and Willard Gibbs Prize (1921). Moreover, she had two daughters. Marie Curie achieved much success and she deserves to be recognised. However, she is the only woman among a huge group of male geniuses. This affects girls negatively: either they are perfect in everything they do, or they can’t aspire to have a scientific successful career. This lack of empowerment has been commonly designed in Gender Studies as “Marie Curie Effect.”
The underrepresentation of women in text books or the fact they are usually relegated to secondary tasks, consolidates gender stereotypes at school. Girls bear this hidden curriculum daily. However, there are some actions to include not only historical women but also the role of women in current scientific progress. Even though these efforts exist, according to the National Science Foundation, in 2013 just 19.2% of undergraduates enrolled in engineering programs were women. According to Eurostat, the situation in the European Union (EU-27) is similar, where just 11.2% of the graduates in Science and Technology were women.
When it comes to research, the situation doesn’t improve. Here women experience glass ceiling barriers, invisible barriers stopping female academics from upgrading in their careers. Hence, although the percentage of women with a university degree overcome the percentage of men with the same education, they aren’t always visible in research. As an example, in 2015 40% of all university professors in Spanish public universities were women, only 20% of all senior university professors were women and just one female university rector― even though 60 % graduates are women, according to the Spanish Statistical Office―. In many cases, issues on promotion are due to a lack of empowerment. Only the “Maries Curies” can access, women are not educated to fail but to fulfil all the requirements.
Another important fact is the balancing of work and family life. As pointed out by Jenny Gristock in an article in The Guardian, male scientists have partners out of the scientific world that take care of the children, whereas female scientists usually have another scientist as spouse. So finally, women take charge of family life. Instability in research contracts doesn’t help either in this task. Therefore, scientific research is masculinised and this masculinisation led to negative effects on society. As an anecdote, Jenny Gristock tells that first-generation car airbags would have drowned women since there weren’t planned for a human being with breasts.
Likewise, science masculinisation leads to a disregard of women’s performance in science, considering their publications less valuable. In fact, most scientific committees and editorial boards in scientific journals are composed mainly of men. In this regard, science is also far away from achieving equality. The American librarian Jeffrey Beall focused on gender bias when developing a checklist for journal selection― The editorial board engages in gender bias (i.e., exclusion of any female members).
In the European context, the founding program Horizon 2020 advocates for gender equality in public research institutions. Precisely, it pretends to “foster gender balance in research teams, in order to close the gaps in the participation of women” and include gender perspective in innovation. Yet, public gender policies always generate a public debate, as happened with the Google engineer. Even if a woman is perfectly capable of holding a high-level position, her presence there is associated with a policy and not with her merits.
At the end, Simone de Beauvoir might be right: one becomes a woman, a scientist or a manager; however, half of the population has a harder path.