Opinion

After 5,000 years and obstacles women are still not seen as equals in the lab

9 min read

16 September 2015

Research by the L'Oréal Foundation and OpinionWay has found that female scientists still have a way to go in terms of being equal in the eyes of the British public. We took a look at the obstacles that have previously kept female scientists at bay, and how they are viewed today.

It’s been said that our prehistoric forebears lived in an equal society, with numerous studies pointing out that inequality came with the advent of agriculture. Even then, women started off with far more lee-way in terms of the field of science – at least in certain areas of the worlds.

According to Patsy Giese of Slippery Rock University of Pennsylvania, written records exist about Egyptian female physicians such as Merit-Ptah from 2700 BC, and Zipporah from 1500 BC. Egyptian women who were educated were entitled to study any field they chose, and to become respected professionals in their chosen exploits. And the study of medicine was deemed to be an important endeavour for women and men alike. 

In 600 BC – due in part to Greek science – the number of women recorded per century in historical documents increased about 50 fold, said Giese. That ratio stayed relatively constant for the next 12 centuries. 

Women were treated equal to men in the Pythagorean Community, Plato’s Academy, and the Epicurean School. In the first or second century, Maria of Alexandria, also called Mary the Jewess, was an alchemist who invented the water bath, the three-armed still, and other chemical equipment. And the last great scientist of antiquity was arguably Hypatia, who was born in 370 AD. She invented the plane astrolabe for measuring positions of stars and planets, an apparatus for distilling water, and the hydrometer for determining the density of liquids.

In the dark ages royal women were allowed to study medicine and natural sciences with scholars in their courts. At this time, there were also female engineers in China. And from 1000 to 1400, opportunities for women scientists in Europe reached a new peak.

“Contrary to popular impressions of the Renaissance as a period of great resurgence in intellectual activity in Europe, it was a time of decreased participation of women in science,” said Giese. “There were a number of factors causing this decline. Numerous abbeys were closed following the Protestant Reformation, and often their property was given to universities. As universities grew, female physicians who had been trained by other women lost the right to their profession even if they had passed an examination. 

“Not only were women with scientific knowledge called charlatans, with more serious consequences they were called witches. Estimates for the number of people (nearly all of whom were female) executed for witchcraft between 1400 and 1700 have ranged from 100,000 to 9,000,000.”

What awaited the female scientist was a long line of hurdles that need to be jumped. In the 19th century, a commonly held belief was that developing a woman’s intellectual capacity would always diminish her reproductive capacity. And despite the US having created the charter of Georgia Female College in 1836, women employed as teachers there had to be single.

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Come 1910, women were generally low-paid laboratory assistants. Women were forbidden to enter mines because they might cause bad luck, and women were not allowed to use astronomical observatories because they might be unsafe away from home at night. Even if females did the work usually assigned to males, the females received substantially less pay. 

Yet after 5,000 years, and despite the obvious increase in equality, female scientists still find themselves unable to gain an equal footing. Shockingly, women could probably associate with at least one of the hurdles that previously held females back centuries ago. One of the more recent examples lies in the controversial speech given by 2001 Nobel Prize winner Tim Hunt. At a conference in South Korea he claimed that it would be less distracting if women were separated from men. He reportedly said that women “cry” when you criticise them and “fall in love” with their male colleagues.

This outburst, combined with recent research from the L’Oréal Foundation, highlighted that women still had a ways to go when it came to being equal to their male counterparts in the eyes of the British public. The report claimed that less than a third of people thought of a women when asked to picture a scientist – which is considerably lower than the European average of 41 per cent.

According to the research, 71 per cent of people thought men were more suited to high level scientific careers than women – a figure far higher than the European average of 60 per cent. Meanwhile, 64 per cent of the public believe that women lacked the abilities needed to succeed as high-level scientists.

An article in The Guardian traced Hunt’s history, and found something that made his outburst seem even more astounding. “Hunt’s breakthrough about the cell cycle happened at marine biology laboratory, Woods Hole. It was here that he worked with Joan Ruderman. In his Nobel lecture, Hunt lauded the experiments of her and Katherine Swenson, who were the first to show that cyclins bring about cell division. He described their experiments as ‘electrifying’, saying the women produced a ‘spectacular result’ that ‘made people sit up and take note’. He clearly respects their scientific insights, making it extremely hard to understand why he thinks working with women is a waste of his time.”

While there is still work needed to address gender preconceptions, there is also a lack of awareness of the ground-breaking achievements by women in science. When asked who was behind big scientific research breakthroughs, the majority of the public automatically believed they were led by men. For example, 77 per cent attributed the discovery of the composition of stars to a man, despite it being discovered by female scientist Cecillia Payne.

But the tricky thing about discrimination is that it isn’t always intentional. Researchers used an Implicit Association Test to determine how unconsciously biased a person is. In the case of women and science, people might be asked to very quickly associate words like “woman” or “wife” with terms like “astronomy” or “physics.” Across 34 countries, 70 per cent of people were quicker to associate male terms with science than female terms. In fact, science teachers themselves automatically tended to rate female lower in maths than their male counterparts.

By enabling more women to succeed, despite the existence of unconscious bias, this will gradually eliminate the stereotype of the successful scientist as male, which is the root of gender bias.

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