Mirjam Guesgen

Freelance Science Writer

I am a freelance science writer currently based in Toronto, Canada, with a particular interest in animal welfare.

I love communicating complex, scientific ideas in an engaging, balanced, thought-out and informative way.

The changing face of women in science

"I see women in the classroom. I don't believe women have any business in engineering, and I'm going to personally see to it that you all fail". This was the comment made by a professor at the Northeastern University in Boston during the 1970's. While such a statement would be unthinkable today, sexism is still inherent to science as a whole. There are a disproportionate number of women working in science compared to men, and the few that do earn less and receive fewer grants

As a female scientist, I'm curious to know why this is, and whether it is the case across all science disciplines. In my area, veterinary science, the ratio of women:men is about 70:30. Similarly, in psychology or the social scientists, the ratio is much more even. However, it's clear that when it comes to the physical sciences, engineering, and mathematics, this proportion could easily be flipped the other way.

Still image taken from the interactive diagram produced by Science magazine (click through here). Data source: National Science Foundation http://www.nsf.gov/statistics/seind12/append/c5/at05-17.pdf. Note that these are US statistics.

Still image taken from the interactive diagram produced by Science magazine (click through here). Data source: National Science Foundation http://www.nsf.gov/statistics/seind12/append/c5/at05-17.pdf. Note that these are US statistics.

Why then, does this division exist? There are several possibilities, but one is that there are fewer female role models in higher academic positions. Fewer role models means that girls are either consciously or subconsciously being told "you can't do this". Another, is that, biologically, women are still the "baby makers". Although, I feel the "stay-at-home-Dad" is becoming a more popular concept. In terms of women serving on scientific advisory boards, the issue seems to be they're not asked to do so. As someone who is completely naive to the process of being appointed to such a position, my initial though would be: so what? Why wait to be asked when you can promote yourself? This may, in part, also come down to a smaller pool of applicants to chose from. I'm hoping as the number of women in science increases, so too will the number who move on to such positions.

What, then, is being done to encourage women in the sciences? There are a number of organizations, grants, and scholarships around New Zealand (and the world) that aim to do exactly that. President Obama helped showcase some excellent female role models at the annual White House Science Fair, which this year had a particular focus on women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects. In addition, many universities have family-friendly policies to help overcome the "baby making" hurdle.

Finally, it's interesting to think about my own personal science journey. For me, gender was never really an issue. Many of my role models were, and are, men (e.g. Robert Winston or my Dad). I feel like the encouragement I got from home and early on at school drove me to pursue what I love. I hope that, now and in the future, this will become a non-issue, especially as we see more and more examples of kick-ass women achieving amazing things.