Are stereotypes limiting women in science?

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There is an incredible lack of women in science, and this is not because women are less able in this field, but is most likely a combination of various factors that lead to women not being supported, not being taken seriously and feeling that they do not have the abilities in this industry.

So what causes women to be taken less seriously in science?

The biggest factor is the influence of gender stereotyping on the expectations of the abilities of men and women. These include expecting men to be strong, intelligent and powerful and expecting women to be caring, motherly and subordinate. Obviously, these stereotypes are damaging to all genders, however, the stereotypes for women are particularly damaging, limiting their perception of their own abilities, preventing them from pursuing a career that goes outside the stereotype and can lead to women being perceived as a vulnerable group, contributing to very high rates of violence towards women.

These society wide stereotypes then integrate themselves into the way we perceive the abilities of women, especially in careers or academic achievements (in fact, this also contributes towards women underestimating their own career prospects and academic achievement, please see here for more information). This can not only prevent women from achieving their goals, but also can create barriers for women in their careers, for example in science.

Historically, science has been male dominated and this leaves the scientific community particularly vulnerable to the presence of somewhat unconscious gender discrimination. Thus, women often struggle in science, not only against factors such as the gender wage gap or the leaky pipeline effect, but also in the way their presence in the scientific field can be doubted and not taken seriously. 

The stereotype that women are not as intelligent as men or are bad at science can thus contribute to preconceived ideas about their abilities. For example, many women in science report the benefits of gaining a PhD or abbreviating their name in order to hide their female identity, as the title ‘Dr’ or absence of a female first name on documentation prevents people from unconsciously (or in some cases, consciously) judging their work based on their gender. Dame Stephanie Shirley, the founder of the software company F.I. Group, famously changed her name to ‘Steve’ to assist her in the business world of computer programming and help prevent gender stereotyping from effecting her work.

Furthermore, the pressure on women to look a certain way can be problematic for women in science. The way women look is often linked to the perception of their abilities, if a women is considered attractive or is dressed fashionably/un-modestly, her capabilities as a scientist are brought into question. Women are also equally punished if they are considered to dress ‘frumpily’ or in a way that is not considered sexually attractive. Thus, this seesaw of punishment for women based on the way they look can be particularly problematic when pursuing a career and when needing to be taken seriously, as your abilities can be trivialised and as a woman you can be seen as unimportant if you are not completing what should be your main goal in life, looking attractive.

It is really important that we address the presence of gender stereotyping in our society as it makes us conscious of its effects. And only then can we start to prevent the way these stereotypes are limiting the lives women go on to live; in science, academia or in any career.


The importance of role models in encouraging girls into STEM

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Currently, women are still massively underrepresented in Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) industries. This is caused by many reasons that are slowly being addressed by the industry, such as inflexible working hours restricting working parents, lack of support for women in STEM, the way we stereotype the characters of women in society and being discouraged (somewhat subconsciously) from a young age.

From a young age children absorb the information around them, shaping their view of the world, and even if they are not in direct contact with a strict reinforcer of gender roles, they will still pick these up from the wider environment. Most children will learn that boys need to be strong, powerful and financially responsible, whereas girls develop the idea that they need to assume a caring, submissive role. These gender traits can often limit girls in their self confidence and alter their perceptions of their own skills, this is called Stereotype Threat. Stereotype Threat is thought to underlie the consistent under-performance of girls in Maths and Science in comparison to boys in the UK (Simpkins and Davis-Kean, 2005). In fact, in countries where there still remains fairly prominent gender roles (such as in the UK and Turkey), girls will under perform in maths and science in comparison to boys; But in countries where there are more equal opportunities for boys and girls (such as in Iceland, Norway and Sweden), the gender gap between science and maths test results significantly reduces to almost no difference.

Another factor that appears to place a vital role in the participation of girls in STEM subjects is the presence of a female role model. When students are regularly exposed to a female role model who works in STEM industries, the negative attitudes towards women in STEM is improved. This also is thought to decrease the effect of Stereotype Threat on girls’ performance in these subjects, especially if the role model is someone they can identify with. Therefor, it is incredibly important for schools to utilise outreach projects available to ensure that there is periodical exposure to female role models. This will not only be beneficial for girls, but improve the opinions of boys as well.

So what can we do? We need to endeavour to reduce the exposure to gender stereotypes in society, to ensure children reach their full academic potential and are not hindered in their future careers by Stereotype Threat. We also need to make sure schools fully utilise STEM engagement programmes that are available, such as STEMNet. To ensure that not only are children exposed to the variety of career paths in science, but also girls can find role models that can assist them in achieving their career goals.


Social pressures and the relevance of evolution.

Sexual selection is a way in which organisms choose their potential mates through physical characteristics, first described by Charles Darwin in 1859. These features are usually used to reference the “integrity” of the organism, such as the health and reproductive potential of the mate, and can be indicated through age, size and appearance. Thus, sexual selection plays a key role in evolution, it has influenced how all organisms have developed and will effect how they develop and adapt in the future.

This evolutionary concept has also effected the way humans have developed over time and contributes to the social pressures that are present today. In humans, Charles Darwin suggested that the hairlessness of females (in comparison to male) alludes to good reproductive potential, as it indicates hormones levels. Hip size, body shape and facial features also indicate the ability to reproduce in humans, as well as whether the genetics of the organism would be beneficial for the offspring. Thus, these characteristics have manifested themselves into our lives, even today.

Youth indicates the reproductive potential of the organism, and in humans youth is usually indicated by facial features such as large wide set eyes, a large forehead  and hair colour (amounts of grey hair). Reproductive potential is also measured by the body type of human, such as weight, size of sexual characteristics (such as breasts, bum, hips or chest) and (as previously mentioned) body hair, as these determine sex hormone levels and thus indicate the ability to reproduce. Thus sexual selection has shaped human preference.

These preferences are still present today and have undoubtedly contributed to the social pressures on women to shave, dye grey hairs, diet and seek cosmetic surgery. But, this cannot be used as an excuse for these inappropriate and ridiculous expectations for women, as humans have removed themselves from the evolutionary chain (though we are still evolving, but not as other organisms do). Thus, the preferences of sexual selection are irrelevant in humans today, as humans are the dominant species in the planet with no predators and thus competition to maintain the species is unimportant in the human race.

The pressures on women to look a certain way is not only detrimental to the confidence of women but is completely irrelevant to humans today, as they have removed themselves from the evolutionary course.

The occupational hazard of professional objectivity.

Medical professionals and researchers need to detach themselves from patients to ensure good quality of care and good research practice. But is this objectivity involved in the development of stigmas in the medical profession and damaging to the practitioner/patient relationship?

In cases of medical research, patients can often be defined by their physiological characteristics, such as a mental disorder or a disability. While I appreciate that anonymity and objectivity is incredibly important in the construction of a good research project, I think that is crucial not to dehumanise patients. Furthermore, this sometimes discriminatory objectivity could be perpetuating the stigmas many patients face in the general public. This argument is also supported by the reports of some patients experiencing issues of prejudice from medical professionals themselves; in the forms of not feeling understood or supported and even some cases of poor professional practice. Of course, these cases may not be the result of medical objectivity contributing to a form of discrimination, but due to social stigmas being present.

Detached objectivity may also underlie some cases of abuse or mistreatment of the elderly or disabled in care homes (but of course, this would be largely be due to discrimination itself). Objectivity could possibly breed dehumanisation, and thus the patients could be seen as “disposable” or their lives not being fully appreciated.

Obviously, I am not placing the blame of social stigma and patient abuse on detached objectivity, as it is a useful and important factor in good quality care and research. However I think that in some cases this professional detachment could sometimes cross over into the dangerous territory of devaluing patients lives. This could then affect practitioner/patient relationships and could potentially trickle into the societal opinion of the patients and contribute to the development of a stigma. Thus, it is important for medical professionals and researchers to take into account their language when discussing patients and cases to ensure that they are not dehumanised or misrepresented.


Schizophrenia and Dissociative Identity Disorder

Schizophrenia is an illness where there is an increased level of the signalling molecule dopamine in parts of the brain involved in movement and emotion, the striatum. This causes the characteristic symptoms of schizophrenia, such as restlessness, intrusive thoughts, hallucinations, feelings of conspiracy and paranoia (hence the name, paranoid schizophrenia). The cause of schizophrenia is thought to stem from genetic and developmental factors, as well as being induced by drugs of abuse, such as cannabis. This mental illness can be treated by medications which decrease dopamine in the striatum, but this can cause side effects.

However, despite a very typical and characteristic set of symptoms associated with schizophrenia, it is often wrongly referenced, for example, in the joke “I am a schizophrenic, and I am too”. This is an incorrect use of the term, as there is no presence of multiple personalities in schizophrenia, yet this idea has integrated itself into common knowledge of the disorder. It seems that schizophrenia and Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID) are confused. DID is a mental disorder where patients experience multiple personalities, these can differ in age, gender and personality. Unlike schizophrenia, there is little known about this illness and no medicinal treatment outside of psychological therapy.

Thus, it is interesting that DID and schizophrenia are often confused as there is no overlap in symptoms. It is important that mental disorders (and any forms of illnesses) aren’t confused, and any confusion is resolved, to not offend or insult people effected by them.

The chemical structure of dopamine.

Mirror neurones, empathy and self-awareness.

Mirror neurones were discovered by Gallase when investigating the neuronal networks involved in movement. This neurone type is activated when an individual copies an observed movement or when a performed action is copied by someone else. Different mirror neurons also fire dependant on the context and the position of the movement in space.

Lacoboni theorises that these neurones are important in predicting and understanding behaviour, but these may also play a role in empathy. This was supported by the use of informative brain imaging techniques. The brain regions containing mirror neurones activate during feelings of disgust, happiness and pain as well as activating when viewing images of other people experiencing these emotions. Mirror neurones have also been implicated in Theory of Mind, in which one’s own mental state is represented and this is used to predict and understand the mental state of others.

Both of these theories are supported by mirror neurones in autism. Autistic patients show impairments in predicting and understanding the intentions, behaviour and emotions of others and also impaired theory of mind. Furthermore, the brain regions containing mirror neurones involved in these factors are smaller in autistic patients, depending on the level of functioning. Low functioning autistic patients tend to have the most issues in these areas and high functioning autistic patients often only have minor impairments in social abilities. Interestingly, this is reflected in the state of the mirror neuron areas. Low functioning autistic patients show the most loss of these neurones whereas the mirror neurones in high functioning autistic patients are almost intact.

These neurones clearly have a role in social and physical abilities, however how these neurones work is still not fully understood by neuroscientists. This seems to be a consistent issue across mirror neurone research, they are crucial in many processes but why and how is still unsure, thus mirror neurones remain an intriguing enigma in the workings of the brain.


The frozen drug addicts.

Currently, MPTP is the drug of choice for simulating and producing Parkinson’s disease in animals. The drug acts as a toxin to the cells in a part of the brain called the substantia nigra, which is the brain region that is damaged in human Parkinson’s patients. This produces good behavioural similarities between the animals and human patients, such as tremor. However, MPTP was discovered rather unconventionally.

In the 1980’s, a disease gripped a community, which caused patients to be completely frozen and unable to move, but, this wasn’t a virally or bacterially caused disease. This was caused by the accident production of MPTP when attempting to make a recreational drug similar to heroin, MPPP, this caused a population of drug addicts to develop late stage Parkinson’s three days after taking the drug. Dr William Langston investigated this phenomena and this can be read about in the book, The Case of the Frozen Drug Addicts.

However, this unfortunate incident did help develop a good toxin to model Parkinson’s, from which treatments can be tested. L-Dopa, one of the best treatments for the disease, was developed using MPTP models. Furthermore, the side effects of L-Dopa and other alternative treatments are being tested using MPTP models.

Science, we need to talk…

Currently, the scientific community remains separate from the general public. This is the result of many factors preventing science from being a relatable concept to the public domain, in terms of the portrayal of scientific researchers, failure to communicate with the public, the misrepresentation of women in science and encroaching on religious believes. Despite this, science has the potential to form the cement in communities, but it can only achieve this by addressing its innate problems and emphasising the importance of communication.

Science in society

The misrepresentation of scientific researchers is possibly the largest issue in preventing research and science from being accepted in to the general population. In many media formats, scientists are portrayed as “men in white coats” and “mad scientists” that are void of morals and rationality, experimenting in an unnatural way, just for the sake of experimenting. This perpetuates a fear in society of science and insinuates that scientists are corrupt and limitless in what they would attempt to create. For example, a “scientific experiment gone wrong” or biological weaponry is usually the epicentre for the plot for many sci-fi films, which is a massively successful market and is a genre watched by many. This consistent characterisation of science in many genres of films both attenuates and represents the fears of the capability of scientific research. However, Professor Jenny Kitzinger’s research highlights how this may merely be an alibi, and the representation of scientists in society originates from a failure to address and appreciate the fears of society concerning research like GM crops.

There is very little representation of science outside the scientific community itself. Mark Henderson discussed in his book, The Geek Manifesto: Why Science is important, how the number of politicians from a scientific background is almost negligible, and that many politicians lack even basic scientific knowledge. This idea is aided by Carl Sagan who believes that science isn’t just a form of experimental practice, “science is a way of thinking”. Thus, if polities were taught to address political issues by utilising a form of the classical scientific method, attempting to remove all bias and ensuring that policies were effective.

But arguably, science should have limits and society shouldn’t treat science as a religion (Scientism) as even if science were to be more approachable and accepted in general society, it is not possible that everyone would agree with it. For science to engage society, it is a question of communication. In the past, it appears that scientists are poor communicators, in terms of neglecting to share information, the research being inaccessible or being perceived in a patronising manner by society. For example, Professor Kitzinger discusses the “hierarchy of knowledge” issues of medical professionals and researchers ignoring the input of family members in persistent vegetative state and minimally conscious state patients. 40% of consciousness disorders are misdiagnosed, and recent research has suggested that fMRI could be used to determine the difference between these two states. However, Kitzinger observed how family members of these patients already had an idea of the diagnosis, due to reports of intermittent consciousness, but were ignored. 

This then became bitter sweet when they were confirmed by the later fMRI. Thus it is important for scientists to not appear patronising or self-important when talking to the general public, to ensure that the portrayal of scientists is positive.

Professor Sir David King developed principles of building a community in science and in society. By ensuring honest portrayal of results, preventing corrupt practice, respecting other scientists work, decreasing the impact of science on the environment and discussing issues with research with the public, this allows the general public to feel involved in scientific research and less threatened by it.

However, there are large parts of society that science is either isolating or isn’t being targeted to towards, polarizing communities.

Women in Science

Often, the discussion of the representation of women in any industry triggers uncomfortable feelings, but it is a topic that requires attention. In all industries women are paid less, but in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) fields, women make up a very small proportion of employees. Not only this, but the achievements of women are not being recognised in the same proportion as the achievements of male scientists. For example, only 2.9% of Nobel prizes are awarded to women. This in a community that prides itself on researching and improving the future is a fairly scary statistic.

It is possible that science is targeted towards men and this prevents women from making science their career of choice, this would certainly explain the lower number of women in the field. This idea is supported by schools favouring scientific studies towards male pupils, and by scientific magazines being categorized into the men’s section.

In an attempt to attract young girls into science as a career, the European Union released a public service announcement entitled “Science: it’s a girl thing”. It featured women in high heels and provocative clothing attracting the attention of an attractive male scientist. The advert also featured the women writing out scientific formulae in lipstick, interspersed with images of makeup and the fashionable models of the commercial. This, to be blunt, was the most sexist portrayal of women in science that I have ever seen; worsened by the fact that it was attempting to attract women into science and trying to defy the stereotype of science as being a male orientated industry. This did not assist in increasing the number of women in the STEM fields.

However, the male dominated aspect of science doesn’t explain the attitudes towards women that are present in the industry. Almost every industry will contain forms of institutional sexism, but there are many examples of sexism in science that isolate women in the career.

There are many examples where women were not supported (and in some cases were even fired) after reports of sexual harassment in scientific research facilities. This in no way encourages women to enter into a scientific career. Furthermore, cases like the one of Professor Jocelyn Bell supports the idea that male scientists view the work of female scientists as inferior. Professor Jocelyn Bell discovered the Pulsar, despite this, her thesis advisor had his name put first on the publication of the research, gave talks about the research and was awarded the Nobel Prize for the work.

Ben Barres is a case that proves the presence of institutional sexism in science which prevents and impairs women in the industry. Ben Barres is a transgender male, who had gender reassignment surgery at the age of 42. After he became physically male, the attitudes towards his scientific research changed dramatically. He reports that before his sex change, he would use his initials rather than his full name to gain more respect from male peers. He also reported being told that “[his] work was much better than his sisters”. This unique case confirms the issues of sexism in science which ultimately divides the community and discourages women from entering the career.

Take home messages

Science is a wonderful and interesting, but it is far from perfect. As a community, science fails to address the concerns society has with research and often appears patronizing to the public. Furthermore, it is soggy with institutional sexism and science cannot progress or hold the moral and intellectual high-ground when it doesn’t
 improve these factors.