Women in Science – the gender gap persists

This week’s post  subject was prompted by a recent BBC news item on the World Economic Forum report on the state of the gender gap globally, and a visit to the video/DVD store (yes they still exist here; but probably not for much longer given the rise of digital downloads). Let me explain:

Last week  I was sent out by the family to get a DVD to watch from our local store, and whilst browsing the shelves looking (rather disappointedly) at the latest implausible sci-fi offerings, my attention was caught by a young couple making their selection. I must admit I became rather transfixed, as it was like I was watching some bad comedy sketch or soap opera. They came in and immediately the guy reached for a copy of Bullet to the Head (the latest Sly Stalone macho nonsense) saying “this looks awesome” while the girl reached for The Big Wedding (a rom-com) saying “I hear this is good.” This went on for at least 10 minutes with the man choosing the most violent action titles out, and the woman choosing the latest crop of rom-coms and melodramas. What surprised me (despite wondering how compatible they might be as a couple) was the way they fell into an marketers dream of gender stereotypes.

I have lived in Canada for over 10 years now, and must admit I have found that gender cultural difference far more pronounced in North America than in the UK.  For example, male nurses (such as myself) are far less common here and people often assume I am gay when my profession comes to light. There seems to be far more separation of activities deemed suitable for boys and girls in primary and secondary schools, and cultural activities designed to segregate the sexes.

I must admit, my memories of growing up in 1970’s UK hardly represents a paragon of gender equity. However, I recall that on Friday nights a group of friends (both men and women) would end up down the pub to put the world to rights. We had a circle of mates, that included both sexes, and in most social activities at college both girls and boys were involved. Here I find women refer to going out with their “girl-friends,” as the norm, and pubs here are still mainly a male domain. We also have women’s hospitals, rather than womens departments in general hospitals. It seems that the whole of Canadian society is much more geared up to support gender separation.

I recall my (rather naive) hopes for the future of human civilization as a young man where for a world of better equality of economic development, gender and racial inequalities and the end of discriminatory and socially divisive practices. I  hoped that scientific progress could help in this, and that women and men would be equally represented in the scientific community. When  I looked at the latest gender-gap report and the excellent interactive maps on the BBC site I see we still have a way to go (although it would have been great if they had included a map exploring gender inequalities in the science and technology sector).

Feminism in science is well established, and social scientists love to point out that science is not culturally neutral, and operates within the established cultural norms of the time.  Feminist postmodernists argue female subordination has no single cause or single solution. Sex and gender are seen as social constructs but are not necessarily constructed in the same way in different people and cultures. Central to feminist postmodern ideas are the notions that human beings represent interconnected collections of psycho-social inventions forming a fragmented existence and sense of identity. As such, ideas of universals and the power of rational analysis become meaningless, and likewise assumptions of feminist progress (Harding, 1986). These views expounded by Harding, and others have also argued some quite extreme positions, including that Einstein’s theory of relativity is gender-biased, and equating Newton’s Principia to a “rape manual.” These arguments tend to rely highly on metaphorical interpretation, whose methods can also be argued as simply presenting another ideologically motivated perspective of science to fit a certain viewpoint.

In all, feminist interpretivist approaches to science are clearly grounded in the historical inequalities and subordination of women in society. These are indisputable, for example we only need to look at suffrage; it remains a travesty of justice that women were only allowed the vote in the UK and Canada in 1918, and in the USA in 1921. There are, of course other sub-groups in society that have been ill treated in society, and whose contributions to the development of science have been understated (e.g., the early Islamic scientists, and African-American scientists to name but two).

The central question of whether women actually think differently to men at a fundamental level remains a keen area of debate, and making such affirmations in terms of sex inevitably raises the old dyadic arguments about the nature of superior/inferior ways of thinking that dogged early feminist attempts for equality. Overall I wonder that postmodern feminism represents yet another descriptive analytical framework that offers no clear explanatory theory and therefore, provides no grounds for positive action to improve things. 

Even in the economically developed world women often find it harder to gain equivalent salaries and career prospects as men in science. In terms of education is was interesting to see in the report that North America ranked #1 in gender equality whilst overall dropped to 20th.  The reasons for this are unclear, but even though the situation in most of Europe and North America is far better than  in say, China, Asia, Russia and the middle east (I recently heard Saudi Arabia described as the worlds biggest women’s prison); we still have a way to move forward in gender equity in scientific professions.

My sense is this needs to start early on in life. If we don’t stop promoting sexually stereotyped roles and behaviors in primary and secondary education and wider society then little will change. Educational and recreational activities that are gender specific need to be better integrated, and children treated as individuals in school rather than prepared for stereotypical gender roles.

It is good to see there are still plenty of examples of great Canadian female scientists, such as Dr. Irene Uchida, who died recently, but it would be good to see this become an unremarkable event in terms of gender in the future, and a society where senior female scientists or male nurses are not seen as anything unusual. We would be interested in hearing the experiences and thoughts of our female readers here.



Harding, S. (1986). The science question in feminism. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.



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