When I was in high school, my physics teacher ascribed me of cheating because I got the highest exams scores in my class In the small Austrian village where I grew up, the image of a woman is still largely dominated by birthing children and spending her days in the kitchen. It seemed unthinkable that a girl could be interested in physics, let alone score higher than the boys.
After spending several exams with him stood by my shoulder and some impromptu oral quizzes, he realised I was not cheating but did indeed enjoy physics. after this, he became very supportive and fond of me. In turn, I hope I contributed to changing his views for future female students to come.
Fast forward ten years, I am about to finish my PhD – admittedly, in neuroscience and not physics – and although I have encountered no more gender-specific hardships throughout my scientific career so far, I am hesitant to continue down the academic path. Women belong in science, I never had any doubts about that, and to me, it seems strange that access to science was restricted to women for so long. Just for that, I want to stay in academia out of spite to prove myself.
According to 2019 data from the UNESCO Institute for Statistics, less than 30 per cent of STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) researchers are women. Although these values vary considerably between countries, and in the years to come this will hopefully change with a turnover of the image of faculty positions as the ‘old white man,’ it shows a common worldwide trend: women opt out of research careers. For example, in Sweden, 60 per cent of Bachelor’s students are female, but only 49 per cent of doctoral students and 36 per cent of researchers, pointing to a somewhat leaky pipeline. Arguably one of the highest prizes in science, the list of female Nobel laureates is short; most so in Physics, with only three women overall receiving the Nobel prize since 1901 (as opposed to 207 men).
What are the reasons for women dropping out of research careers? For one, it is the high job instability, particularly in academia: contracts are often limited to one or two years, and relocation is a common theme. While this is perhaps exciting at first, it is also hard to reconcile with potential family ambitions. Paid maternity leaves are difficult to encounter in such short contracts. I am far from starting a family, yet this instability is a significant factor discouraging me from a scientific career. Additionally, there is still an undercurrent of gender bias.
My favourite example for this is the brilliant and unfortunately recently deceased Stanford neuroscientist Ben Barres, who lived and researched as Barbara until his forties. Similar to my own experience only ten years ago, during his undergraduate degree Barbara solved a tricky maths problem, only for the professor to imply her boyfriend must have solved it. Following his transition, however, Ben found he was treated with more respected and less frequently interrupted. Somewhat comically, another researcher commented that “Ben gave a great seminar today – but then his work is so much better than his sister’s” (he did not know Ben and Barbara were the same people).
More must be done to encourage women into scientific careers. I believe a large part of this will be achieved by peer mentoring to provide career guidance, which is already in place in some universities, as well as more support to reconcile career and family. For my part, I hope the statistics will look better in ten years.
This post was written by Chiara Herzog and edited by Karolina Zieba.
On February 11 the world celebrated the International Day of Women in Science. In honour of the holiday, EuSci is publishing articles about women in STEM. If you are interested in writing about your experience as a woman in STEM, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.