Mind the gender gap

Harvard College Observatory in the 1890’s. Half a million celestial photographic plates and a team of women recruited to analyze them. These women were restricted to this boring and repetitive work and were denied the opportunity to make observations themselves using the telescope.
From then on  things have surely changed, but progress now seems to have stalled. Women are under-represented in science whether in basic scientific research or at higher decision-making levels.

Women in Science, statistics from Unesco

Indeed, according to UNESCO’s Institute of Statistics, less than one in three researchers in the world is a woman — here an interactive data tool about women in science divided for countries. This low representation can be observed from the start of higher education: things are balanced until the end of high school, but after that, only 32% of undergraduates are women. The gap gets even wider in the professional world: the higher you climb the academic ladder, the fewer the women are. Thus, only 11% of the highest academic positions are held by women.

How can we explain such a gap? This is a question with no easy answer. A study appeared on Science in January, suggested that women are underrepresented in fields – like Mathematics and Physics — whose practitioners believe that raw, innate talent is the main requirement for success, because women are stereotyped as not possessing such talent.

To address the problem, the European Commission has committed to fostering gender balance in research teams and to reaching 40% female participation in its advisory structures for Horizon 2020, the European Union’s research-funding program for 2014-2020.
So, are mandatory quotas the solution? Or should some good practice — such as family-friendly policies — be expanded?

For much of human history, women were officially excluded from the scientific realm. But this did not mean that science was exclusively a man’s world. Many women, throughout the centuries, have excelled in their chosen field, making vital contributions. A comic from Margreet de Heer, Science: a Discovery in Comics, NBM (2013)


(Posted by Lara, Elisa and Giulia)


5 pensieri su “Mind the gender gap

  1. It is by now a truism that women’s careers in science face particular difficulties compared to those of men, and even special difficulties compared to those of women in other kinds of work. Almost always it attributed this scarcity women in the highest levels to family commitment , the care of their husbands and sons. It is not just a matter of law or policy decisions , but a culture that must make its way of thinking of all for things to change. The laws will help change things just as there are people willing to lay the foundation for them to have not only a formal application, but substantial .

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  2. I don’t think that imposing mandatory quotas is a good solution, only an extreme one. In fact, the idea behind mandatory quotas is to create an artificial disequilibrium in order to force a natural one in the future.
    Mandatory quotas in politics limit democracy as well as mandatory quotas in research and science reduce meritocracy. For example, if a young male student has better CV and results than his female colleague, why a university would have to choose her only because she is a girl? And how could the institution explains such a decision to that guy?
    There is only one way out from sexism and gender gap in science: working with families and schools to change the cultural frame at the source of the problem. It’s long way to resolve it, of course, but i think it’s also the only possible one.

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  3. I usually do not agree with the solution of mandatory quotas. However, I think that in this case it could be a successfull solution. The OECD report “L’egalité des sexes dans l’education” (2014) shows how, even today, girls underestimate their talents and have lower self-confidence than boys in scientific subjects. It also shows that in Shangai, where students are the best in math, girls’ score is lower than boys’, but nevertheless higher than any other student’s, boy or girl, in the rest of the world. When girls compete with boys in STEM (science, technologies, engeneering and mathematics), the pressure of social bias is yet too strong and girls can’t fight it without any help. Mandatory quotas are not the best we can hope, but it is a way to remove the comparison with boys and then the anxiety. For now, I think they are an inevitable passage.

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  4. I agree with Nicola and Sara, mandatory quotas are not the solution. At least, the definitive solution. And culturale changes surely are necessary. But its a long way, as Nicola said.
    So, I also agree with Marta saying quotas are an inevitable passage. Indeed I wonder whether mandatory quotas could accelerate women inclusion in science. I mean, this would be a good way to ensure that young female scientists have female role models. Science female students could not conclude consciously or/and unconsciously that these science careers are not for them because they do not see people like them. Moreover, more women could create a network and improve policy changes more suitable for women inclusion.
    At the end, I am leaving you with this article appeared on The Guardian some days ago (*). The Nobel scientist Tim Hunt calls for gender segregation in labs because women ‘cry and fall in love with you’.
    (Lara Vozella)

    (*) http://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2015/jun/10/nobel-scientist-tim-hunt-female-scientists-cause-trouble-for-men-in-labs

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    1. I agree that in an ideal world, the mandatory quotas would not be the right solution. However, the world we live in is not a perfect world. In too many areas, the presence of women is still too low to a degree that has statistical significance. This is a clear evidence of the persistence of discrimination. The most direct way to overcome the problem is to force the right balance between female and male presence in academic research as well as in other professional fields. This has to be done even at the modest cost of reducing meritocracy for a while. Once the balance is reached, women will be able to compete with men on equal basis and climb the academic ladder or win higher decision-making levels thanks to their skills. Then we can do without quotas.

      (by Elisa)

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