Why are women stalling in science?

At St Mary’s Calne this week we are celebrating National Science & Engineering Week. The girls have been inspired by a range of engaging and interesting talks, activities and events and there is an exciting buzz around the school as they share scientific ideas. Because there are no gender stereotypes in a girls’ school, many Calne girls take Physics, Chemistry, Maths and Further Maths to A Level and go on to read Maths, Engineering, Physics and Natural Sciences at university. It is worrying therefore that, according to Sylvia Hewlett and Laura Sherbin in The Athena Factor: Reversing the Brain Drain in Science, Engineering and Technology published in 2008, 52 per cent of highly-qualified women working for SET companies quit their job, driven out by “hostile work environments, isolation, extreme work pressures and a lack of clarity surrounding career paths”. It should be of great concern for all those responsible for the education of girls and young women that six years later, despite a rise in the global demand for talent in science, engineering and technology, women are still ‘daunted and demoralized’ by the working culture in these fields.

Hewlett and Sherbin point out that “while no longer subjected to overt bias, women continue to face powerful ‘antigens’ in SET corporate environments. They are marginalized by lab-coat hard-hat and geek workplace cultures, which are exclusive and promote bias. They are isolated by finding that they are the sole female on a team and feel excluded from ‘buddy networks’ among their peers and lack female role models. Crucially, although SET women have sponsors, they don’t reap the benefits to the degree that their male colleagues do. These antigens contribute to an environment of subtle unspoken bias that makes it more difficult for SET women to assume leadership roles”.

If we want women and girls to pursue careers in science, celebrating women’s historic achievement in science and remembering our pioneering role models are vitally important. This week I wanted to focus on Professor Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell, who was forging her career in the world of astronomy back in the 1960s when it was still pretty unusual for women to have any career outside the home. As a 24-year old PhD student, she spotted an anomaly buried in a huge raft of data from a radio telescope that led to the discovery of ‘pulsars’, or the dense cores of collapsed stars, that gave far more weight to the theory of black holes than had previously been the case. This discovery was written up in the journal Nature in 1968 with her supervisor at the University of Cambridge, Antony Hewish.

This was a discovery worthy of a Nobel Prize, and indeed she and Hewish shared other prizes but, when the Nobel Committee awarded the first-ever physics prize to go to an astronomer in 1974, it went to Hewish and another male colleague, Martin Ryle. Many prominent astronomers were outraged at the time, though others argued that Bell Burnell had largely been gathering data for Hewish to interpret. Whatever the rights and wrongs of the situation (and she herself has never contested it) the incident figures highly in most lists of the ‘top ten Nobel snubs of all time’.

Jocelyn Bell Burnell’s place in the history of astronomy now seems secure and in 2009 she achieved one of the many firsts for the women that we’ve traced in these blogs, when she became the first female President of the Institute of Physics. She is also very clear about the importance of women in positions like her as role models, saying “…for me, being a role model was…important, just to show there are women doing science, enjoying it and being good at it”.

We really need to make sure that today’s young women for whom 1974 might already sound like ancient history realise how thin the layer of ‘equality’ is, and understand how much they owe to Professor Bell Burnell and other women like her. But we also need to understand that to remain globally competitive every company needs to harness the innovative potential of its highly-qualified female workforce. Nowhere is this imperative greater than in the science, engineering and technology sectors.