Women in Science and Engineering – Part 1

I’ve been thinking about the problems of correcting the gender balance in science and engineering for a while but I’ve been inspired to write this post now because of the recent controversial comments by Tim Hunt, an eminent bioscientist, about women in science. Google these if you haven’t heard of them.

The only people who come of the ‘Hunt affair’ with any credit are the women scientists who have satirised Hunt’s ridiculous comments about women in science with the Twitter hashtag #distractinglysexy. Hunt himself is clearly one of these very bright people who really aren’t very smart. I don’t know if he is simply unworldly and didn’t understand the impact of his offensive comments or so arrogant that he thought that his eminence allowed him to be offensive without criticism.

Hunt was forced to resign from his post at UCL, by the university, because of his comments. He has been rightly vilified but sacking him was utterly disgraceful. Universities ought to be the foremost defenders of free speech and it is  unbelievable that a university professor should be sacked because of his opinions, irrespective of how offensive these may be. Hunt did not use abusive language and has never been accused of inappropriate behaviour with his female colleagues both of which might be grounds for dismissal. Sadly, the university seems to be more concerned with media opinion than with upholding free speech and I am astonished by its behaviour. The lack of public protest from UCL academics is disappointing but perhaps less surprising as they may well be concerned that by speaking out they compromise their own position.

This, of course, is only an issue because of the gender imbalance in engineering and science. The percentages vary from discipline to discipline but overall, within science and engineering, women have somewhere around 20%-25% of the jobs.  This has been a concern for many years and there have been a range of initiatives that have attempted to attract women into science and engineering. By and large, these have been an abysmal failure and the situation now is, if anything, worse than it was 15 or 20 years ago.

Why has this situation occurred and why have initiatives to address the problem failed. I believe that one reason why they have failed is because of our education system forces teenagers to make decisions at age 15 about the subjects they will study. Essentially, a choice has to be made to focus on science or humanities and this choice constrains their later choice of university courses and future careers.

Most initiatives to attract women into science and engineering have focused on trying to convince teenage girls to chose science subjects at school and later at university. Yet, they ignore the fundamental reality that at age 14 or 15, all teenagers are profoundly affected by cultural attitudes and peer pressure. The reality is that, at that age, science just isn’t ‘cool’.  Science attracts people who may be thought of as obsessives or nerds (I know, I was one of them) and most teenage girls, irrespective of their abilities, simply don’t want to be thought of as nerdy.  It is perfectly natural and understandable that they choose not to expose themselves to the teasing and exclusion that can happen to science students.

The reality is that 15 year olds will always be concerned what people think of them. Earnest talks by adults on the value of science and engineering isn’t going to change this situation.  It is utterly ridiculous that people at a difficult stage in the lives are forced to make decisions about their future careers that are incredibly difficult to change.

Unfortunately, most UK universities have colluded in this sad situation. They have been lazy in adopting admissions policies that focus simply on results in school exams and have demanded particular A-levels or Highers for admission to science courses.  In reality, a great deal of school science is so over-simplified that it is utterly irrelevant at a university level and developing science courses for students without a science background would not be particularly difficult. This would help those students who regretted the choices they made at age 15. This, on its own, obviously wouldn’t solve the problem of gender imbalance in science but would at least be a mechanism for widening the choice of study subjects for both boys and girls.

I think there is much more that we can and should do to enhance educational opportunities for those who decide that their choices at age 15 were not the ones they wished to make for life. I’ll talk about these in my next post.

7 thoughts on “Women in Science and Engineering – Part 1

  • June 15, 2015 at 3:45 am

    Ian, there is a typo:
    “The reality is that 15 year olds will always be concerned what people thing of them.” should be think!

    My view is that girls are smart enough to avoid toxic workplaces replete with sociopaths, charlatans, and exhausting working conditions.

    Graham Hay

    • June 15, 2015 at 4:00 pm

      Girls may well avoid such workplaces (or get out of them ASAP) but in doing so they limit their career. Such workplaces don’t help anyone and there is no evidence that they are actually more productive.

      • June 15, 2015 at 8:23 pm

        So perhaps we should focus on addressing the root cause of the dysfunctional workplaces in IT first, rather than encouraging girls to join up for the inevitable cycle of “death march” software development projects.

  • June 15, 2015 at 4:35 am

    I ought to clarify that I am of course referring to the “IT Industry” specifically, and not to Science or Engineering in general.

  • June 15, 2015 at 5:29 am

    Interesting post, Ian. I’m very much a non-scientist and always assumed that science, like Maths, was ‘cumulative’ ie that university would build on what had been learnt at school. If it is possible to develop uni courses that did not require much prior knowledge of science as you suggest this would help. So too would the ability to add science elements/modules to non-science courses.

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