Women! Science is not for you!

Posted by a.hay on 13 August 2014 - 2:00pm

By Pam Cameron, Managing Director of Novoscience, and Clare Taylor, Lecturer in medical microbiology, Edinburgh Napier University.

This article is part of our series Women in Software, in which we hear perspectives on a range of issues related to women who study and work with computers and software.

The title of this blog might seem to be preposterous given that numbers of female undergraduates in many STEM (science, technology, engineering, and maths) subjects are on the rise.  However, humour us for a few moments and read on.

We seem to be talking a lot about women these days. For example, women in technology, women in engineering, women in boardrooms, women in sport, women in computing, and so on. It’s good to talk about women, but in all honesty, we’ve been doing this for the last 50 years, and guess what? We’re still having the same conversations.

So why has there been relatively little progress in recent times?  It’s not a lack of will to change things, but our ingrained unconscious bias that has prevented the conversation from moving forward. The situation was epitomised on a popular music quiz on a national radio station just the other morning. The presenter was making small talk with the contestant and established that her job was in software, specifically selling it. “Selling software? Is that like selling cushions and curtains?” chuckled the presenter, presumably knowing full well what it meant. Now, this kind of exchange may sound harmless but the simple fact is that if the contestant had been male, it is extremely unlikely that the presenter would have made such a comment.

Yet why is it acceptable to make a joke like this about a woman? Is it so unlikely and unusual that a woman might work in software? Who has heard of such a thing! And therein lies the crux of the matter - an unspoken, and often unconscious, double standard that means that a woman’s competence is questioned when it comes to certain professions.

This is not just an issue related to men’s perceptions of women. Evidence shows that both genders exhibit the same unconscious bias and discriminate against women when hiring, and are more likely to lie to a woman because she is viewed as less competent.

This all sounds incredible, but a growing number of published studies are providing evidence to back-up many women’s anecdotes. This is important because according to some, unless it is captured in a published study, it simply didn’t happen. You only have to browse readers’ comments below the line of almost any online newspaper article that deals with the equality of women in a male-dominated workplace to find the experiences of women quickly dismissed by those who have never witnessed or experienced it themselves.

In an attempt to highlight some of the issues head on, and more importantly, to engage the public in the debate, we will be presenting Women! Science is Not for You! on August 14th at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe Festival as part of the Cabaret of Dangerous Ideas. Equally, we could have called it ‘Women! Computer Science is Not for You!’ because, guess what? All of the same issues apply but we just happen to be two women who are scientists, so it suits us better to discuss our own experiences.

Recent research claims that females and males are drawn to different subjects, but blindly ignores the role society and parental expectations have on how we are conditioned. Should we really buy into the commonly-held assumption that women don’t speak at conferences as much as men because they’re just not interested? Additionally who would expect women to be promoted based on their achievements whilst men are often promoted on what some like to call potential?

Unconscious bias, gender stereotypes, family pressures and the ongoing issue of sexual harassment, are the main reasons why females are under-represented at the highest levels in STEM. Research, not anecdote, proves this, so the next question we need to ask ourselves is what are we going to do about it?