Rachael Hawkins examines the experiences in women in science.
I am in mourning. I have lost the love of my life. Well I’ve lost what I thought was the love of my life but with the insight afforded to me in my newly bereaved state I am beginning to realise that I may have been blind to my love’s faults and may well be better off without them. I tell myself that I deserve more, I don’t have to put up with the casual abuse, the discrimination and not having my needs met by this relationship. How could I have been so foolish? Love does not conquer all – isn’t this a pathetically familiar tale? It would be if I were talking about a person but I’m not; I’m talking about physics. The love of my life, all I ever wanted to do, the dream I clung to all through adolescence and sacrificed all manner of things for is science. This is an article about the end of my relationship with academia, about me and my peers, young women who do science.
Nearly 100 years after Marie Curie won two Nobel prizes for her research on radioactivity women are still struggling to make a dent in the science arena. This is particularly true in academic research. The rot sets in at a very young age. Several investigations of the career aspirations of girls show science and maths are dropped as potential career paths as soon as girls reach puberty, long before they have to consider A level subjects or what degree to do.
Even the resilient girls who buck this trend and do chose to study physics, maths and engineering find themselves facing obstacle after obstacle. We are no longer prevented from studying at university but we are discriminated against in the very structures and traditions of academic and scientific life. This is a terrible thing for a young woman to realise. After years of facing down everything from bullies at school, negative stereotypes in the media and hostile reactions from peers and families, a postgraduate wanting to stay in research can look forward to poor working conditions, low pay, 10 years of temporary contracts and even if she secures a permanent job at the end of it she will be marginalised in her department, paid less than her male colleagues, be far less likely to be promoted and not represented on the powerful committees within her university. It is little wonder that so many women drop out.
Science as a body is haemorrhaging women at all stages of their careers at a rate that alarms everyone. This phenomena is not just a tragedy for the individuals involved who have to leave a subject they love but it is a major problem for all of us. Our society desperately needs scientifically and technically skilled people. Remember, half of the potential scientists and technicians in this country are female. Unfortunately decision makers in government and academia are big on talk and short on action. There is a world of difference between noticing that women leave science faster than rats abandoning a sinking ship and doing something about it.
Taking my own subject of physics as an example it is clear how underrepresented women are; 2.96% of professors are female, 4.65% of senior lecturers, 8.7% of lecturers, 15.2% of postdoctoral researchers and 20% of undergraduates. 40% of male science graduates but only 25% of female graduates find their first jobs in the science sector. So even women who spend three or more years studying science never go on to use their knowledge or skills in their jobs.
What is responsible for this? Why are so few girls doing science at school? Why do so many women who start out as undergraduates drop the subject later on? There are two forces that hold women back from pursuing careers in science; external obstacles like the actual structure of how science is done and how scientists career paths are defined, and internal obstacles that result from sociological conditioning to be female in a particular way. The interplay of these twin evils changes depending on the age of the woman and the stage she is at in her career but they never go away. It appears that for a woman to succeed in science she must have considerable psychological strength and insight as well as skill in science. The tasks before her in terms of balancing and minimising these forces are immense.
I can’t cover every aspect of the challenges facing women in science in this article, it would be too long. I’m going to focus on a few big issues; the belief that men are innately better suited to science due to superior skill or temperament; media stereotypes of scientists; the appalling conditions of postdoctoral employment which is when most women leave science and the tangled mess of messages and expectations regarding women’s perfectly understandable desire for partners and children which results in a career v. relationships conundrum. I sent a survey to all the women postgraduates in my department and to a few friends at other universities. The results from this survey were fascinating and illuminate many of the internal barriers women face. But first I want to show you the external barriers, the working practices and stereotypical views in science.
There is no evidence to suggest men are vastly better at science than women. I used to believe that there was. For most of my teens I really felt I was extraordinary by coming top of the year in science and maths ahead of the half a dozen or so boys who also regularly scored highly in tests. Then I read a newspaper article purporting to show proof that men were innately better at certain subjects. The article explained how psychologists had tested several hundred men and women. They were given different tasks to do and the percentage of each sex who completed the task correctly in a given time limit was noted. Here was a definitive explanation as to why I should stick to home economics. Only problem was the test results convinced me of the exact opposite. The results were so close I was gobsmacked, 47% of women compared with 52% of men. The figures were like that for virtually every task set. Sometimes the men did better, sometimes the women, the difference was never more than about 5%.
It turns out that this is normal. No one has ever measured a sex difference in performance in maths, verbal reasoning or any other mental skill that is greater than a few percent. It is also well documented that the general population believes such differences are very large, of the order of 80%. I believed the differences were very large so did some of my friends, one estimated it at 20-50%. It seems we are all the gullible victims of an urban myth. Psychologists happily admit they have no way of attributing the small difference to innate biology, it could just as well be due to socialisation. This urban myth has a considerable influence on the way girls think about science and on the career decisions they make at school age. No one ever told me that there was no difference in “natural” ability at science between the sexes, I took it for granted that there was and that I was odd. Just pause for a moment and absorb the full implication of that on my developing sense of self as an adolescent. This myth of male superiority at science is what prevents girls from doing science at GSCE and A level.
At later stages in a woman’s career a second type of men-as-inately-better-suited-to-science myth kicks in, maybe women are temperamentally unsuited to the job. We can’t hack it, we don’t have what it takes, can’t put the effort in. Here is a synopsis of the life of a postdoctoral researcher…
You have spent 4 years as a undergraduate (typical these days in science and engineering) and another 3 years doing a PhD so you are aged about 25 and you want to stay in research. Postdoctoral positions are typically 2 years in duration. The pay is less than the national average wage. You have no guarantee of another position at the end of two years. You need to do about 10 years of these before you can hope for a permanent position. The average age of appointment to a permanent job is 36 years. There is little chance that these postdoc jobs will be in the same country never mind the same area you live in which means you up sticks and move every two years or you loose out. You have no option for part time work in a typical postdoc job and maternity leave is at the universities’ discretion. You have to publish several papers every year to secure another position. The universities are funded depending on their performance in the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE). This counts the number of papers produced by the department in top international journals. You have to boost the numbers or you are out, the RAE doesn’t automatically make allowances for time out due to childbirth or childrearing. Scientists view long hours as a measure of your devotion and commitment to the subject. Expect to work at least 50 hours a week. My supervisor worked 70-80 hours a week. You don’t get overtime pay. You can’t produce enough papers to get a job unless you do this. The belief is that to be a good scientist you have to work long hours. To be a good scientist you have to be dedicated which means you don’t mind working these hours, in fact you should want to. If you have kids you will need large amounts of childcare which is expensive, you get no extra money for this. All this is going on between the ages of 25 and 35 which is when most women are finding life partners and having children. If your partner doesn’t move with you, your relationship ends. Hardly surprising that most married women in permanent research jobs, 45%, have husbands in the same subject. A much high proportion than average of women in permanent research jobs don’t get married at all. 83% of the population as a whole has children, 82% of male physicists have children, 52% of female physicists have children. Spot the difference.
The advice given to female potential scientists is defer having children for as long as possible, ideally until you have a permanent job. That means waiting until you are in your late 30s. Which means waiting until your fertility starts dropping and you may not be able to conceive at all. Which means choosing at 25 to follow a life pattern that may well result in you never having children whether you like it or not. There aren’t dozens of options open to you, you need employment in a university or research institute. Theoretical research scientists aren’t employed by industry at all. The universities have all the power and they have you over a barrel. The choice is literal, choose relationships and family or a career.
I am 26 and I am not prepared to sign myself up for that for the next 10 years. I am having to resolve this issue by myself. There are no women higher up than me in my department. I can name only 2 women higher up than me in my subject in the whole country. The only British female postdoctoral researchers I know of in my subject have had to go abroad, America and Sweden, to get a position. The complete absence of any mentoring for postgraduates coming up to this crucial time in their career is pathetic. The almost total absence of role models doesn’t exactly help either.
The stereotypical view of the scientist is a socially isolated individual with no personal life who is devoted to their work and does little else. This is pretty accurate as far as I can tell. You have to be like this or you loose out to someone who is, you lose out to a man who is. This is the system you have to work in. Yet again women are being allowed into a male arena only if they start acting like the men. No allowance at all is given to the different life path that women experience due to their responsibilities in having and raising children or caring for elderly relatives. Women still do 70% of housework, 80% of childcare and 100% of wifework. Try fitting that around a 70 hour week. Of course this is not just unfair on women. The young men in my department aren’t exactly thrilled at the prospect either. One of them had his first child during his PhD and now has 3 children. In his own words “I never get to see them”, “it is very hard to combine any kind of family life with an academic career and impossible if you are a woman”.
I think the assumptions about what is required to be a good scientist need to be inspected closely. I feel suspicious whenever I come across any unspoken rule or way of behaving which is taken for granted. These unchallenged modes of operating are usually the lurking places of prejudicial and bigoted attitudes. Because no-one ever thinks to question them no-one ever addresses any biased or discriminatory beliefs implicit in them. A great deal of scientific behaviour is riddled with these assumptions. Scientists get very emotional and precious about it, “You can’t water down our standards by insisting we work reasonable hours! Of course we have to be devoted to science how else will the UK keep up with other countries! We need more Nobel prizes! We need more funding!” It is all very macho, competitive and frankly hysterical. Provoking fear of the consequences of changing the working culture surrounding science is a very effective way of ensuring nothing ever changes and enables the community to label people who press for change as individuals who don’t have the best interests of science at heart.
So what does it take to be a good scientist? Science is first and foremost the investigation, through systematic and logical means, of the world around us. A good piece of science is therefore one which increases our knowledge and understanding of the world. Good science involves seeing the holes in knowledge and understanding and setting out to fill them through well-thought-out theories and elegant experiments. This requires originality, technical skill, ability to collaborate with others, creativity, problem solving and communication skills. I fail to see how this is incompatible with a 35 hour week and with the capabilities of the female sex.
These are the external obstacles that a woman is faced with in pursuing a career as a scientist or engineer. Scientific life institutionally discriminates against women. Blatant discrimination occurs too. The 20% difference in male/female salaries at MIT and a systematic and large underrating of women in grading by reviewers in Sweden testify to that. None of this exactly increases the sum of human happiness. Some ways to get around these problems would include tackling the long hours culture, the postdoctoral short contract system and the way funding and therefore jobs are allocated.
One way of circumventing the long hours hysteria is to work smarter rather than longer. I read that in a book a few years ago and I didn’t understand what it meant. I do now but I wish someone had explained it at the start of my PhD. Working smarter means choosing your problems, research projects and colleagues carefully. It means putting more time into preparation and the initial reconnoitering of a topic so that you focus the 35 hours a week you are prepared to work on doing problems that can get good results. The end result should be less wasted time, blind alleys and uncooperative collaborators and an acceptable research output with time for family and relationships. Working smarter needs to be taken up by scientists at the earliest stages of their careers but unfortunately women aren’t in a position to choose their problems, research projects and colleagues carefully. Prospective students are given no information regarding the completion rates in a department or how previous students rate the training they received there, science has no such league tables. It should have. Undergraduates don’t have the connections to know who is a good supervisor and what is a good project. We receive absolutely no training in the skills necessary for research. We are thrown in and left to sink or swim. Working smarter is something your arrive at through luck or a process of elimination, if you stick around long enough that is. It doesn’t occur to anyone to let you in on the secret at the start.
As for the RAE, any system of allocating funding should not implicitly or explicitly compell people to work unreasonable hours and sacrifice family life and relationships. If that means finding some other system of evaluating performance then so be it. The bottom line is that long hours do not make good scientists and this illogical and irrational myth has no place in the supposedly supremely logical and rational area of science.
Now let’s take a look at the internalisation of society’s messages regarding women and scientists and how this affects and explains the career decisions young women scientists make. Internal barriers are the result of a lifelong absorption of general messages from society about women and gifted people into a woman’s self-evaluation systems. There is a collision between self perception and external expectation. These expectations can be cultural, familial and from the peer group. How and when this collision occurs dictates a great deal of what follows in terms of a woman’s career and life choices. I can best demonstrate the kinds of messages and expectations which are internalised by taking my own experiences as an example.
This is the general attitude of my school peers at my state comprehensive. This is what I internalised…
…do science and you won’t get a boyfriend, ever. Everyone will laugh at you and you will always be seen as second best, sexually unattractive and bad marriage/mother material. No man wants to date a smart arse. You hide in books because you are frigid and immature. Just admit your deviance, have a sex change and be done with it – you total freak.
This is a quote from the UIPAP Women in Physics conference report: “girls who are interested in science will be told that they are outside the norm in all their social or casual encounters with their peers or adults. This will probably occur once a week, every week”. A couple of respondents to my survey replied thus, “I think that comment is 40 to 50 years out of date, don’t you?” and “I think this opinion is very out of date. I would be very surprised if you can find anybody under the age of 60 who thinks like this whatever sex they are.” The report was written and published this year, 2002. Unfortunately it is not out of date. I experienced what is described in the quotation and a great deal worse. I was verbally and physically abused by my peers at school for being clever and good at science, nearly every day for 5 years. Several other respondents to my survey describe being verbally abused and socially excluded in school. I find it astonishing that anyone at decision making level in education and the government is still at a loss to explain the lack of enthusiastically scientific teenage girls. Do these people ever set foot in schools?
The careers teacher who advised me on my choice of work experience placement in Year 10 told me to put primary school assistant top of my list and research assistant at the local government research establishment last as “lots of boys will apply for that”. I learned several things from this incident, that women are better suited to caring work, that I don’t stand a chance in competition with males, that I should avoid competition altogether, and that obviously (by the tone of the man’s voice) I am unsuited to a career as a scientist. I felt small and stupid and wondered what signs I was giving off that led this older and presumably wiser person to decide so firmly that I shouldn’t apply for such placements. This was the careers advisor at my school in 1990, not 1890! When I told people, friends of my parents or whoever, that I studied physics at university they asked me “is that because you want to be a teacher?”, one woman even said “Oh for Heaven’s sake! Why can’t you learn to sew or cook or something?”. I reported this indignantly to my mother and uncle who both laughed and said that the woman had a point. My sister told me “people only go to college because they are too immature to get a job in the real world”. I told my father when I was 11 that I wanted to be an astrophysicist, he laughed at me. We are a long, long way from living in a country where such vicious judgments aren’t made of gifted women and girls.
Think also of the images of scientists as portrayed in popular culture. They are not flattering on the whole. Scientists are portrayed as geeky, unattractive, nerdy, sexless and obsessive. The antithesis of the alpha male patriarchal macho ideal. When I think of examples of scientists in the media I come up with Dr Jekyll, Davros (evil creator of the daleks), Mr Spock, the lone gunmen (X-Files), Q (James Bond), Ross Geller (Friends), Peter Parker (spiderman). Notice the associated lack of emotion, the dorky untrendy appearance and behaviour, physical weakness and obsessiveness that goes with these characters. Notice also none of them are women. The only female science characters I could think of after wracking my brains were Dana Scully (X-Files), Jodie Foster’s character in Contact and a couple of Star Trek characters, Seven of Nine and B’Lanna Tores. I was struck by the absence of any personal life and the isolation and prickliness of these characters. They are not portrayed as rounded and fulfilled with happy personal lives and many friends. This view of women scientists is both reflecting and shaping the reality.
Researchers investigating the failure of gifted women to reach their potential have cited a phenomena called the “Culture of Romance” which kicks in most strongly when women start college. Women start to lower their expectations and dramatically underestimate their abilities compared to the male students. They suffer a crisis of confidence and turn their attention to achieving, if it can be called that, through relationships. Status within the peer group is secured by having a desirable, alpha male boyfriend. Talk around the campus is not of work or study but relationship gossip and comparisons. Women who fall most deeply into this trap don’t go on to postgraduate study, regardless of what they planned to do before they started college, and put their partners careers before their own. They take a path that makes conventional relationships easier. Thus they never fulfil their own often exceptional potential. What surprises researchers is that this happens even for highly gifted women. The majority of the women who responded to my survey reported this confidence crash that coincides with time as an undergraduate, some were experiencing it now as a postgraduate.
This is not exclusive to science students of course, all women feel this pressure to conform. What is particularly hard for a scientist is that her chosen career is at the extreme end of unacceptable so far as conventional behaviour is concerned. She has to deal with stereotypes on her as a woman and on her as a scientist. The traditional roles and skills society attributes to women (caring, emotional, passive, nurturing, socially dependent and tied) are the exact opposite of what is required to be a scientist (logical, analytical, competitive, unemotional, socially independent and unattached). We need to adjust society’s expectations on women and adjust science’s reliance on an extremely male way of operating. A middle ground needs to be reached.
Of course wanting to have relationships and a family is not just the result of social pressure, it is a perfectly natural thing for any man or woman to want. I am loath to go down the cultural feminist route and start extolling the female virtue of our “different voice”. I do not advocate the view that women are fundamentally engineered to be more relationship oriented than men. Human Beings are engineered to be relationship oriented. What I do think is that society gives women that role and denies it to men. I feel this is to our advantage and men’s disadvantage. Relationships, community, connectedness, kith and kin are one half of what makes life worth living (the other half being the opportunity for fulfilment of our creative potential). It is absolutely necessary for our mental health and well being and for society’s cohesion. Some aspects of social conditioning are worth struggling against because they deprive us of the chance to fulfil our potential, this does not, it is valuable, important and enriches life.
I don’t think that after 25 or so years of creating and maintaining an important network of relationships and having this skill and mode of behaviour imprinted on her from all directions it is possible for a woman to simply amputate that aspect of her psyche in order to progress in a scientific career. Yet that is what is expected of her if she wants to survive the postdoctoral wilderness years. This is cruel, it causes a great deal of emotional distress. The prospect of moving away from friends and family to a new position every few years for 10 years is too much for a lot of women and they leave science. They leave because they are temperamentally unsuited to isolation and loneliness and are able to give voice to this in a way men aren’t. No man could say he wanted to stay near his family and roots and not be judged as a wimp, women can and do and subsequently leave science. The problem is not the need for relationships, it is the requirement that people have to move away to be scientists. Given that we all recognise how girls are raised to develop these emotional and interpersonal skills any arena where the absence or removal of these qualities is a prerequisite to success is discriminating against women.
Women academics are often very active in being tutors and advisors to students and are very well represented on committees for student welfare in universities. The quarterly national meetings in my subject are arranged by Anne Davis a theoretical physicist at Cambridge. Women in science create relationships and networks within their community and uphold universities duty of care in a way that men don’t. This is valuable and necessary work. It is unrecognised and unrewarded. Even in the midst of a profession which requires the repeated severing of ties and the downgrading of personal relationships and family, women still create these links almost automatically. This tendency to bond and value connectedness is always there. It can’t be amputated. Denied its expression in creating a woman’s personal life it emerges in her involvement in the science community. Why take something so strong and beneficial and try to suppress it at all? Why does the science career path have to involve so much separation and isolation?
When I reviewed the responses to my survey a clear pattern emerged when women’s individual feelings about science where placed in the context of the experiences they had in their families, schools and communities. Women from families which had a history of higher education and expectations that women would work and good school experiences hadn’t yet noticed any obstacles to their science career. Girls from unsupportive families, who had an unpleasant time at school were finding it hardest to keep going and were most aware of the difficulties facing them. This is worrying in some ways and encouraging in others. It demonstrates clearly how external support is vital in keeping women going through their careers. Positive messages from family and peers at a young age go a long way to shielding a girl from the negative images in the media but also seem to foster a lack of awareness to the very real problems these women will eventually face. They are not made aware of any obstacles at an early age and so assume they don’t exist. This group of women were most likely to insist they would be staying on in science, saw no career v. relationship issues as existing, had no involvement in mentoring or women in science groups and wouldn’t describe themselves as feminist. They described positive images of science in the media and had unstereotypical views of the qualities attributed to the ideal woman, many of which they felt they had. They didn’t believe there was discrimination in science and explained the fact that 92% of permanent research jobs are held by men in terms of historical bias. They believed that when their turn came to take up such positions there would be no problem. This is despite that fact that the number of women in permanent jobs in physics has been constant (not increasing) over the last decade.
In contrast the girls from families with no history of higher education and/or traditional views on women’s roles who had bad experiences in school were most likely to be considering leaving science. They were most likely to describe very negative stereotypes of scientists as projected in the media and popular culture and were most likely to describe themselves as not matching up to their perception of the “ideal” woman. They were most affected by the confidence crash at university and noticed the expectations of culture of romance more. But they were also most likely to be in women in science groups and to have an awareness of feminist literature and to describe themselves as feminists. Worryingly several of these women reported their reason for leaving science was “I…came out convinced I wasn’t good at physics. I am going to leave academia for this reason” and “I don’t feel I am good enough to be an astronomer” this is despite them having first class degrees. They had assumed their difficulties were all their fault.
To the first group I could quote the line “denial is not a river in Africa…” but it is this group who are looking most likely to get their feet on the first rung of the postdoctoral ladder. The second group are more aware and have sought out external support but are most disillusioned and fed up with struggling. They see their career path before them strewn with still more obstacles and envisage things getting harder not easier. An unpleasant aspect uncovered in my survey was the quite dismissive attitude of the first group towards their struggling sisters who were described in fairly derogatory ways. One respondent replied on the topic of issues relating to women in science that, “it was a male lecturer who told me that if someone uses that as an excuse for not following an academic career then they likely wouldn’t have had the drive to begin with” and “those who drop out, (…) define themselves by their partner or whatever will likely carry on in the same vein for the rest of their lives. That has nothing to do with science or university, that is just their weak nature. You just hope that at some point in life they’ll start to treat themselves with respect”. It can be hard for a women to express the struggles she may be having reconciling the different expectations and ambitions she has of herself in such an unsympathetic environment.
It remains to be seen if the confident first group continue to be untouched by the concerns of the second. I would say that women in the second group are best equipped to deal with whatever a science career could throw at them if only they were to persist but almost all of them were planning on leaving. It is very sad. There needs to be a balance struck between being too worn down at an early age and having no support but developing coping skills and awareness and being shielded from negative stereotypes but not being naive about the issues. None of the women responding to my survey seemed to have struck the right balance at this stage of their careers in their mid twenties.
How is anyone going to fix this? Girls from backgrounds that make them more likely to drop out need to be identified and supported right from the moment they set foot on campus. They should have a mentor allocated to them in their first term and all girls should be encouraged to join women in science groups. All universities should have women in science groups and mentoring schemes. Women should be made aware of the research already done regarding the factors affecting them at university and beyond, I’m talking consciousness raising here, and should be taught how to work towards a sensible life/work balance. There is an enormous need for informed career guidance counselling that addresses all the issues from media stereotypes, to bullying, to relationships, to the requirements of postdoctoral life and working smarter. None of this exists at the moment. Prof. Susan Greenfield is submitting a report to the government on the status of women in science before Christmas. I am going to send her the results of my survey and a copy of this article. I sadly doubt that anthing will change in the forseeable future.
Writing this article has helped me in several unexpected ways. It has clarified for me my feelings about science and academic research in particular, and has enabled me to make the descision that it is not for me. I am considering science jobs in industry or government agencies but have made no firm descisions yet, what I would really like to do is (don’t laugh) a foundation course in art. I have realised I have had particularly bad luck and not every women attempting to pursue a career in science will have the same problems. I had a dysfunctional upbringing in a family with alcohol and mental health problems and no history of higher education, traditional role expectations, bullying in school, mental illness myself in my teens and to cap it all developed an incurable autoimmune disease.
But I also realise that my reasons for leaving academia are well grounded and I will not tolerate such an unpleasant career path anymore than I would stay in an abusive relationship. I have cried the tears and talked endlessly about what went wrong, I considered counselling and consulted self-help books but the relationship between the love of my life and I has irretrievably broken down; physics and I are getting a divorce.
References used in writing this article:
 “In a Different Voice”, Carol Gilligan.
“Smart Girls: A New Psychology of Girls, Women, and Giftedness (Revised)”, Barbara Kerr.
“Gifted Grownups”, Marylou Kelly Streznewski.
“Psychoneurosis is not an Illness”, Kazimierz Dabrowski.
“Can you Hear the Flowers Singing?”, D.V.Lovecky
“Work Left Undone, Choices and Compromises of Talented Females”, Sally M Reis.
“What’s Holding You Back?”, Linda Austin.
“The Mismeasure of Women”, Carol Tavris.
Good Housekeeing, November 2002.
IUPAP report on the status of women in physics, http://www.awise.org/whatsnew.htm#wps
Physics World IOP, Women in Physics special Issue March 2002.
“A Study on the Status of Women Faculty at MIT” , http://web.mit.edu/fnl/women/women.html
SET4WOMEN, Office of Science and Technology, Dept. Trade and Industry, http://www.set4women.gov.uk/
Association for Women in Science and Engineering, http://www.awise.org/index.html