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Science needs women

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dnaA proactive approach is needed to address the discrimination women would-be scientists face.

Discrimination against women is well documented in the fields of science, from hiring processes to grant funding and research publication.

And several recent discussions have highlighted the breadth and depth of the often-involuntary male bias.

But women are needed.

Many items frequently used in everyday life have been researched and design-tested on the assumption of an average male body.

This absence is seen in day-to day issues: crash test dummies are the size of an average man for example, and car seat belts are not designed for pregnant women.

Or in medicine, where calculations for radiation dosages are based on the absorption rate of a middle-aged man.

More women in science could help broaden this assumed norm of male to a more normal mix of male and female.

Ian Douglas, the Telegraph’s head of digital production, said in a recent article that “the problem is not only in encouraging young women to take up science, engineering, technology and maths-related subjects, but persuading them to look for a career in them once they graduate.

“The Royal Society of Edinburgh found that more than 70 per cent of women who had taken science subjects at degree level did not use them in their subsequent careers, compared with 48 per cent of science-qualified men.”

If very few professionals are women, the ability to examine and pose questions from multiple viewpoints is necessarily decreased.

And as a result of the low numbers of women entering and progressing through scientific fields of work, there is a subsequent lack of women in high profile, senior positions.

This greatly reduces the number of role models available to young girls.

At an astronomy event that Douglas chaired at the Royal Institution, “thinking that my daughter would enjoy something like this in a few years, I looked out at the crowd. I saw… no girls. Not one.”

His recommendation is this: “Parents, look at your daughters.

“She might well like dolls and ponies but if you don’t expose her to meteorites and quantum entanglement, how is she ever going to know any different?”

There are many organisations and programmes being run to try to solve this problem, from the L’Oreal-UNESCO for Women In Science international programme to the University of Dundee’s annual Women in Science festival; the Texax A&M University’s annual Conference for Women in Science and Engineering (WISE); and Sheffield Hallam University’s Women in Science, Engineering and Technology (WiSET) programme.

However, even gaining entry into scientific fields of work is not enough to erase the bias.

Hilary Rose, Emerita Professor at Bradford University and Visiting Professor of Sociology at the London School of Economics, questions current assumptions about the roles available to women.

Following recent publication of the book ‘Genes, Cells and Brains’ about the bioscience industry which she co-authored with neuroscientist Steven Rose, she spoke to the Guardian about ethics in bioscience.

Regarding stem cell research, she says that she is “more interested in the raw material which is the eggs from women’s bodies which can only be secured by women putting themselves at risk – you can even lose your life during this process.

“It is considered appropriate to mine women’s bodies in order to get raw material for research.

“To me, that is an almost non-negotiable ethical problem because what it does is cast women in the Victorian angel-in-the-house [role], [as] the self-sacrificing woman who gets all her meaning in life as sacrificing herself for others.

“I find this quite unacceptable.”

As a senior female scientist wrote (anonymously) in the Guardian, “I think… discrimination occurs against women at the outset of their careers, and that it is systemic.

“Without a proactive approach to address the problem, we will be stuck at the current numbers for the next 100 years.”

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