Almost 150 years ago, the Edinburgh Seven were the first women allowed to study at a university in the UK. Facing tremendous resistance, they paved the way for women to attend university. Today, more than half of the undergraduate students in the UK are female. However, the percentage of women in academia drops with rising rank, such that four out of five professors are men.
Neither women losing interest in science nor poor grades are to blame for this. Traditional gender roles are a factor, in addition to an unconscious bias against hiring female scientists. An absence of female role models is part of the problem: “If you can’t see it you can’t be it.”
Potential Difference, an exhibition staged by a team of researchers from the School of Biological Sciences, documented the achievements of female scientists conducting ground-breaking research at the University of Edinburgh. It was displayed at the Royal Society of Edinburgh from the 10th to the 12th of April, receiving very positive reviews.
Professor Alice Brown Chair of the Scottish Funding Council opened the exhibition. In her opening speech, she pointed out that even though there is less overt sexism against women present in society nowadays, problems remain: a large proportion of talented female scientists are not being represented further up the career ladder.
The exhibition featured an impressive ‘wall of talent’, comprising photos of brilliant female scientists from across the university. In addition, female scientists from various career stages gave interviews, and elements of their research were on display.
The work Serial Dilution was particularly well received by visitors. It displayed a scientist’s work bench with Petri dishes covered by photographs of eyes coloured either blue (‘male’) or pink (‘female’). Different Petri dishes represented different career stages and the ratio of blue to pink eyes highlighted gender bias across the career ladder.
Exhibits like Mind the Gap highlighted that, shockingly, having a male first name increases the likelihood of a successful job application. Official deed poll forms were even provided if you wished to change your first name.
Potential Difference will be shown again to MPs at the Scottish Parliament in May. Due to the success of the exhibition at the Royal Society of Edinburgh, the team is currently planning to exhibit the works in various venues.