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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.