Why Are There So Few Female Scientists?

Sylvia Ann Hewlett is an economist and founding president of the Center for Work-Life Policy in New York. She also heads the gender and policy program at Columbia University. On Sunday, a piece she penned was printed in the Financial Times; it concerned a study on which she is the co-author, and it deals with women in the science, engineering and technology fields. The study, which will be published next month by the Harvard Business Review , shows that 41% of highly qualified specialists on the lower rungs of corporate career ladders in these areas in the US are female. But! 52% of highly qualified women working for science, engineering and technology companies voluntarily leave their jobs, driven out by hostile work environments and extreme job pressures. A sexist culture drives more than half of qualified women away.

While feminist blog The F Word wonders if the study is a bit simplistic, Catherine Price writes on Salon: "Many U.S. science, engineering or technology companies are complaining about an overall lack of American talent — a situation that will only get worse if the Bureau of Labor Statistics is correct in its prediction that from 2006 to 2016 jobs in these fields will grow 'five times faster than other sectors.'" Are we regressing to a time where science and technology are fields solely for men? Do we need more women like award-winning neuroscientist Susan Greenfield, whose delightful profile in the Independent is worth taking a moment to read. ("Many people like downhill skiing, or dancing, or wine, or sex, or food," says Greenfield. "Up until now, [pleasure seeking] has always been part of our lives but a polar opposite to seeking meaning. I fear we are shifting too much in favour of the literal, the hedonistic, the here and now, and losing meaning, context and content in favor of process... There's no point of living life if it's not fun.")

But part of the problem could be the image that scientists have in our collective unconscious. Researchers have found that the stereotype of mathematicians as geeks discourages students from studying math. A study by the Institute for Policy Studies in Education at the London Metropolitan University discovered:

Nearly all participants, both math-friendly students and those who steer clear of equations, think of a mathematician as a white male with white hair, who is obsessed with the number-laden subject to the exclusion of any social life. For instance, participants labeled Albert Einstein and John Nash (portrayed in the movie "A Beautiful Mind") as lacking social skills and as weird or not normal.

So you already know what I'm going to ask you: If we're living in a culture where little girls think being called "sexy" is the ultimate compliment, where girls may have damaged mental health from advertising and media, where students of both genders don't want to study math because it is geeky, what does our future look like? As the rest of the world makes leaps and bounds in science, engineering and technology, we're perfecting a reality television. (Oh, and don't forget: The Philippines, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Canada, France, Iceland, The Netherlands, Bangaldesh, Ireland, Poland, Liberia and Argentina have all had female presidents or prime ministers.)



Focus On The Female Talent In The Backyard [Financial Times]

Sexist culture drives Women Out Of Science [Times Of London]

Sexist culture drives Women Out Of Science [The F Word]

Where Are All The Women Going? [Salon]

Susan Greenfield: The Girl With All The Brains [Independent]

Mathematicians Still Seen as Einsteins [Live Science]

[That picture is not of Sylvia Ann Hewlett or Susan Greenfield. It's a Russian post doctoral student working with DNA samples. Finding an image of a female scientist was difficult. Google image "doctor" and you get tons of images of men in white coats and a few images of female porn stars dressed as nurses to "play" doctor. Go figure.]