Medical and biological sciences are attracting more women but physical sciences, engineering and technology remain male dominated fields of study and employment globally. In the US and much of Western Europe, there is a persistent and well-documented pattern of under-representation of women working within the fields of science and engineering and a concentration of women in less prestigious and less rewarded scientific occupations. A range of initiatives have been set up to promote science among young women and to support those women already working in those fields. As with mathematics and technology, the construction of science is infused with ideas about gender.

Despite many important contributions to science from women such as Hypatia, the male dominance of science has a long history. The emergence of modern science in Western Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries was marked by the exclusion of women from access to science institutions and lack of recognition for their work.

For example, as Marie-Pierre Moreau points out, although the Royal Academy in London was founded in 1662, it was only in 1945 that a woman first joined the institution. Similarly, although the Académie Royale des Sciences in Paris was founded in 1966, it was only in 1979 that a woman became its first elected member. Even Marie Curie, who had won two Nobel Prizes, one in physics, the other in chemistry, had seen her application to the Paris Academy rejected.

These days, in the UK as in most of the Western world, women have been granted formal entry to all scientific institutions and to all areas of the curriculum. Yet, subject choice remains strongly gendered with girls and women much more likely than boys and men to opt out of key scientific areas of study and employment, notably: physics, and engineering.

However, there is no simple story of progress. In fact when new scientific fields emerge they are often less dominated than they later become – a classic example of this is early twentieth century radioactivity. The annual proportion of female physicists at the Institute of Radium Research was 22% and increased during World War I to 57%. These are figures for female participation which are far higher than in many countries today.

The persistence of gender inequalities in science can be explained by how masculinity is deeply rooted in Western conceptions of science. As Genevieve Lloyd wrote:

The intellectual virtues involved in being a good Baconian scientist are articulated in terms of the right male attitude to the feminine: chastity, respect and restraint. The good scientist is a gallant suitor. Nature is supposed to be treated with the respect appropriate to femininity overlaid with long-standing associations with mystery-an awe however which is strictly contained.

Media representations of scientists remain male dominated with women generally restricted to peripheral and stereotypical roles.

Among those who study a science-related subject at university, women are less likely to take employment in this area following graduation. And as they progress through the ranks, a leaky pipeline means that the proportion of women declines still further. For example, UKRC statistics show that in 2006-07 women represented 30% of researchers and 25% of lecturers in SET in UK higher education, but only 18% of senior lecturers and a mere 8% of professors. The data from 2008 showed little progress.

However, these data and other studies show a complex picture with gender intersecting with other factors such as ethnicity. For example US research by Maria Ong shows that scientific authority comes from being objective, “gender, race, ethnicity, social class, immigration status, and sexual orientation have no acknowledged place in this cultureless culture”. ‘Draw a scientist’ studies support the pervasiveness of this image. ‘Geekiness’ holds a particular place in these image. However, Roli Varma’s (2007) US research on women studying computer science at university suggests that geek images have less impact on women from minority ethnic than from White ethnic backgrounds.

The situation of women in science is on the agenda of many governments and international organisations, including the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and the European Commission. The rationale for promoting women in SET brings together concerns for social justice and economic competitiveness.

Useful Links

Biographies of Women in Science

UK WISE Campaign: Women into Science, Engineering and Construction works with industry and education to attract girls into Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics studies and careers.

UK Resource Centre for Women in Science, Engineering and Technology: The UKRC is the UK Government’s lead organisation for the provision of advice, services and policy consultation regarding the under-representation of women in science, engineering, technology and the built environment. Their website contains a large number of resources, blogs, information and links to other campaigns and organisations.

STEM subject choice and careers: This is a series of nine programmes focused on STEM subject and career choices. The first three programmes in this series focus on Science, Mathematics and Engineering. Later programmes look at: Choosing Careers; Equality and Diversity; Information, Advice and Guidance; Role Models and Work Placements; Economic Wellbeing; STEM Careers Interviews. The programmes can be downloaded and there are a range of resources to support them.

STEM Careers Equality and Diversity Toolkit: This is an interactive toolkit to help careers advisors and teachers to promote Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics, (STEM) careers to people with a range of backgrounds and needs.

Making Women in SET visible: a toolkit on gender equity (based on research by GEA members) for producers of online media in the areas of science and technology

Further Reading

Byrne, E. (1993) Women and science: The snark syndrome. London, Falmer: Byrne reports on Australian research into the lack of women in science, mathematics and technology courses in higher education. This book challenges much of the received wisdom in this area, notably on the value of single-sex schooling and same-sex role models.

Harding, S. (1998) Is science multicultural? Postcolonialisms, feminisms and epistemologies. Bloomington and Indianapolis, Indiana University Press: Harding is a key write on the history and philosophy of science. In this book she argues that all knowledge is local and the universal stance of Western science has only concealed role in continuing gender and race oppression.

Phipps, A. (2008) Women in Science, Engineering and Technology: Three Decades of UK Initiatives. Stoke-on-Trent, Trentham: This book deals with UK initiatives in science, engineering, construction, technology and gender largely from the 1970s to the mid 2000s. It outlines hundreds of interventions past and present and draws some broad conclusions about their impact, positive and negative.

Schiebinger, L. (ed) (2008) Gendered innovations in science and engineering. Stanford, CA, Stanford University Press: This book looks at the ways that taking a gender critical approach within science and engineering has altered both how knowledge is produced and what knowledge is produced. It does this through a range of chapters that describe and analyse the impact of gender critical approaches in specific cases, for example, the genetics of sex determination, car design, the sexing of skeletons, the significance of venus figurines in anthropological archaeology.