Dr Claire Asher (@claireasher) recently completed a PhD at the University of Leeds and the Zoological Society of London where she studied the social behaviour and genetics of a species of giant ant. She is currently working in knowledge exchange at University College London. She is also a freelance science writer and is a keen science communicator.
Frequently in the news at the moment is the issue of women in science. Why are there so few women in science, and why does the sex ratio skew heavily in the more senior positions? But as someone who works in science, this just isn’t what I see. My field is filled with women, in fact. Subjects like ecology, zoology and conservation have no difficulty in attracting female graduate students and more and more women are moving into senior roles. It’s not that the media are lying. There really are more men in science and engineering in general, and it is a real issue. So why are women choosing biology over physics?
For me, the choice to study biology was based purely and simply on the fact that I found it fascinating. But I’ve never given a great deal of thought to what fostered that preference. From an early age I remember being interested in the outdoors, in insects and flowers. But I also recall being fascinated by astronomy, staying up late asking questions about the sun and the solar system. I was inquisitive, but about pretty much anything you cared to show me.
One thing I do recall particularly was a pressure, even at primary school, to display the ‘normal’, ‘correct’ response to insects of ‘eeeewww’. (I suspect if you looked you’d find far fewer women studying insects than mammals!) Eventually I relented, as well, and for some time pretended to be scared of things I wasn’t, to the point that I sort-of even started believing it. I have no real memory of where that pressure came from, though. I must have just unconsciously picked up on social convention.
This may be the most worrying aspect of this issue. At least in my experience, I haven’t been confronted with any strong opinions about women in science in general, or in the so-called ‘hard’ sciences such as physics and chemistry. Perhaps I have been very lucky in that respect. But what I was clearly aware of from a young age – and what may be unconsciously influencing young women across the world – is the overarching social convention, the stereotype that women aren’t adept at science. This is something subtler and more abstract than overt sexism. It is more pervasive, more ellusive and more enduring. Maybe biology, amongst the sciences, is perceived in some way as the more acceptable science for women.
Some people claim that women are generally poorer at maths and problem solving, which may explain the stereotype that the ‘softer’ sciences such as ecology and psychology are more suitable for a woman in science. Biology is often viewed as being less mathematical and more subjective than physics and chemistry. This viewpoint is of course, erroneous. These subjects have always been statistically complex, and as computing power increases and modelling approaches become more advanced, the place for maths in biology is expanding rapidly. If conservation and ecology are attracting the less mathematically-minded students, these sciences are going to struggle.
Each discipline demands a complex and unique skill set, and different ways of thinking are advantageous to different scientific challenges. But not in a way that discriminates between sexes, just merely between individuals. A great scientific mind is rare, and what makes a great physicist might not make a good biologist, but sex has little to do with it.
The choice to study a particular subject is a complex one, reflecting innate aptitude, experience and personality, and it probably isn’t something most scientists have given much thought to. We select research questions because we find them compelling, or because we feel they have significance. But why we choose a particular subject area over another is a more engimatic issue. Of course, women are more than capable of excelling in physics and engineering, but relatively few of us decide to pursue a career in these areas, perhaps simply because they tend not to spark our interest, or perhaps because we are unconsciously swayed by enduring social stereotypes. The gender stereotypes that say physics and maths are ‘hard’, ‘masculine’ subjects while biology and psychology are ‘soft’, ‘feminine’ subjects could be unconsciously biasing women at an early age. If this is the case, we need to consider how we can change these ingrained attitudes. If Alberta Einstein is out there, we want her to have the confidence to study physics.