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Women of science, do you know your place?

Why there are so few women in science? Or to be more precise, why are there so few women in the physical sciences, and so few at the top of any field?

While the situation is nowhere near as bad as it used to be, backward attitudes toward female scientists remain. As an undergraduate not long ago, it was just accepted that one physics tutor viewed women as inferior at the subject. Later, working at the European Laboratory for Particle Physics, Cern, I was frequently mistaken for someone who might like to do the photocopying.

At a packed evening at the Wellcome Collection on 13 January, hosted by the Times Eureka magazine (and ex-Research Fortnight) reporter Hannah Devlin, three professors attempted to dissect the problem.

After wading through a quagmire of statistics, what it seemed to boil down to was, do women naturally do things differently and so are less inclined to study some areas of science? Or is there is a dearth of women because society pushes them elsewhere?

According to Athene Donald, professor of experimental physics at the University of Cambridge, social cues have a lot to answer for, with parents and toys having an often unseen influence. Overt discrimination against women also remains, she added, with promotion panels viewing men as assertive but women as aggressive, and rating the credentials of men as better than women with identical CVs.

Meanwhile biology professor Ottoline Leyser suggested that research’s competitive system of metrics is in some way biased towards traditionally male traits. An obsession with the quantifiable is unable to capture more traditionally female characteristics, that both men and women can have, and which might be a huge research advantage, she suggested.

The only male panel member, Keith Laws, professor of cognitive neuropsychology at the University of Hertfordshire, floated the idea that men, being more predominant at the extreme end of what’s been called the systematising brain (a much better name than the “male brain”), might have fewer options other than to go into physical science fields than those women who can both systematise and empathise.

The problem that I saw was really how little evidence we have on which to base efforts to increase the numbers of women in science. According to Laws, the clearest differences between male and female brains we know is that men are more likely to be dyslexic or autistic, while women suffer more from Alzheimer’s.

Even if there were fundamental differences between the skills of the two sexes, would a female-run science establishment produce less understanding, technology and human progress than the current system? Nobody knows because it’s never been tried.

Meanwhile, the question whether cultural cues are to blame is difficult to accurately test, although we can say that male-female divisions are not universal – countries such as Argentina and Italy, have nearly equal numbers of men and women studying physics.

And finally is the leaky pipeline across all research – such that according to the European Commission’s 2009 She figures just 7 per cent of women in EU academia are at professor level, compared to 18 per cent of men – something that can be tackled? Or will the fact that women physically bear children forever prevent them reaching the top in larger numbers?

The point here should be that if we are missing out on such a gigantic resource that is half the population, for both science and equality’s sake we should try and answer some of these questions. We can roll out endless anecdotes and statistics, but a better idea would be to look at what’s behind the present situation and if anything can be done.

That’s exactly what groups such as the UK Resource Centre for women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics and the European Platform of Women Scientists have attempted to do. And in the last 18 months, both havelost their funding.

The quiet acceptance of this from both the general scientific community and policymakers suggests that those at the top believe the situation is either irresolvable or acceptable. Sentiments that I doubt were shared by the swathes of mainly young and female science-enthusiasts streaming out of the Wellcome Collection last week.