Feminine Science Role Models… and other bad ideas?

What does a scientist look like? In an ideal world, if we asked a random group of children to draw a scientist, we would see a huge variety of responses. We would see some male, some female, some dressed in lab coats, and others ‘in the field’.

This post was written in response to news of research indicating that feminine female role models may put girls off science. It was was originally published on the ScienceGrrl blog in February 2013.

What does a scientist look like? In an ideal world, if we asked a random group of children to draw a scientist, we would see a huge variety of responses. We would see some male, some female, some dressed in lab coats, and others ‘in the field’.

Scientists, like any other group, are not all the same.

And as a community we ought be showing this diversity. To encourage children to embrace the idea that they can follow scientific careers, we need to be showing that people like them already do science. Evidence shows that perceived similarity is an important factor in creating effective role models, and therefore we need to be providing role models that aren’t just old, white, men.

Yet there is a wealth of evidence showing that children of all ages, even those from minority backgrounds, have the over-whelming perception of a scientist as a white bespectacled man, working alone in a lab.

With scientists – male and female – visiting schools, and taking part in engagement schemes like the brilliant ‘I am a Scientist, Get me out of here!’, we can hope to start counteracting this image, and show that scientists are human beings; that they have their own sets of interests, personalities, have taken different career paths, and indeed can be emulated.

Therefore, when a news release for a paper entitled ‘My Fair Physicist? Feminine Math and Science Role Models Demotivate Young Girls’ popped into my Twitter feed a few weeks ago, I was rather alarmed.

What are the implications of this, if feminine role models really do demotivate girls from embracing science? By encouraging a wide range of people, including ‘feminine’ women to talk to children, are we actively doing harm? Social science research can be invaluable at informing our understanding of human interactions, so I took the scientific approach, read the paper, and looked at the results.

I’m not going to repeat what is a comprehensive take down of the paper.  However the tl;dr (too long; didn’t read) version is that neither myself nor a number of others are convinced by the conclusions of the study.

The paper focused upon a very extreme stereotype of what a ‘feminine female scientist’ would look like; someone who wears pink, likes fashion magazines and wears make up. I wouldn’t like to define what a ‘feminine female scientist’ would look or act like, nor guess at how such a person would be portrayed in a written interview (as was the method used to introduce the role models to participants of this study).

Whilst I am sure there are some female scientists who do wear pink clothes, like fashion magazines, and wear make up (indeed, my former physics teacher was one), it is statistically unlikely that there would be that many. Instead we would expect a bell-curve of ‘femininity’ (however that was defined), and indeed a female scientist certainly need not conform to this image in order to self-define as ‘feminine’.

Just by looking around us, and thinking about who we know, we can see that scientists come in all shapes, sizes and skin colours. Some are male, some female, and some would prefer not to define as either. Some are feminine, and others are not.

Similarly, school aged girls are not a single group. Some of these will be more confident than others, some will have more positive ideas and experiences of science, and yes, undoubtedly some of these will be more feminine than others.

If we want to provide girls, and indeed other groups under-represented in science, with role models, we need to ensure that these multiple types of ‘scientist’ are made visible. The more we do this, the more we breakdown the preconceptions of who and what a ‘scientist’ is, and the more we increase the probability that any one child can find someone they can relate to, and hope to emulate.

Perhaps there will be studies in the future which better show the effects of role model types on perceptions of science. Perhaps we will get better insight into the age at which stereotypical images of scientists begin to form, how these preconceptions are reinforced, and how to better break them.

In the meantime, I think we can do a lot worse than displaying the diversity of scientists in our midst.

Diversity doesn’t just STEM from gender equality

When you think about ‘diversity in science and technology’, what springs to mind?

Diversity in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) often seems to be about gender equality. It’s about the fact that 84.4% of professorial roles in STEM are taken by men, when 48.4% of academic STEM staff are female. It’s about the fact that only 16.3% of those who do computer science as a first degree in UK HEIs are female. It’s about the fact that the career pathway of science is currently structured in such a way that the number of female researchers decline dramatically during post-doctoral positions.

But I want people to think more broadly about diversity in STEM. I hear people saying they don’t want ‘old-white men’ to be the only face of science we see, but apparently the alternative is a white, able-bodied female.

I get this is a step forwards, but for me it’s not enough. I don’t see grass-roots organisations displaying the same anger or focusing on the inequalities seen due to ethnic groups, disability, or socio-economic class.

I am surrounded by people who are rightly outraged about the gender pay gap, the number of women on STEM related speaking panels, and the number of girls taking physics at A-levels.

Yet, the issue of inequality in STEM runs much more deeply than gender.

0.3 % of UK-domiciled STEM professors are black/African/Caribbean/Black British and just 0.2% of Veterinary Science students, despite this ethnic group making up 3.3% of the UK population. That’s just 10 black Veterinary Students in the whole of the UK, and around 20 black professors.

Physical and mathematical undergraduate courses have a smaller proportion of entrants from lower socio-economic backgrounds than the average degree course, and this is before we consider that those from lower socio-economic backgrounds are less likely to go to university in the first place. As a recent HEFCE report states, young people from the “most advantaged areas are three times more likely to enter higher education than those from the last advantaged areas”.

Equality at the STEM undergraduate level isn’t just about entrance to University. It’s about where you go (18 year olds in the most advantaged areas are between six and nine times more likely to go to institutions that have higher entry requirements than those in disadvantaged areas),  and it’s about how you do when you get there, (41.4 % of black UK-domiciled STEM students obtained a first class or upper second class honours degree in 2012, compared to 68.1% of white students – a gap of 26.7%).

If we just focus on gender equality we can miss details such as the fact that white working class males are the most under-represented group at university, and that in the most disadvantaged areas, 18-year-old females are 50 per cent more likely than males to apply to higher education.

It can lead us to forget that we don’t collect data that can accurately link socio-economic backgrounds to post-graduate participation rates – when postgraduate degrees are a requirement for many academic STEM jobs.

Or that it was only in 2012 that the ‘STEM Disability’ group was set up.

The arguments for gender equality in STEM include an upcoming skills gap, a basic principle of fairness, and the fact that diversity is proxy for ensuring a diversity of views, essential for any problem solving exercise.

These same arguments also apply for more broad diversity considerations.

I get that we all have biases, and individually our focus will largely be driven by the issues that we feel have limited us, or those around us. For obvious reasons, this equates to the large focus on equality for women in STEM; and this means there is a critical mass to make ‘women in STEM’ a prominent issue.

However, true diversity requires a broader focus than gender. It is not as simple as trying to improve gender equality at undergraduate, postgraduate, or post-doctoral levels. It’s much more complex than this, and we have to take into account disability, ethnic groups (recognising that ‘BME’ as a concept can be misleading, and often needs picking apart), and background, amongst other concerns. These factors often intersect with each other, and indeed often interact with gender

And when doing outreach, we need to make sure we take into account this complexity, and we need to be sure we aren’t just reaching out to the already reached, and we need to make sure we don’t exclude other groups. We also need to remember that not everyone will have the ability or interest in becoming a high-flying scientist, and we ought to be better at talking about technician or support roles!

Isn’t time we made our concepts of diversity in STEM a little more inclusive?