Sunday, 17 March 2013

Is it cos we is thick?

This week's Guardian Women's Blog asked the question, 'why are there so few female maths professors in UK universities?' It reports that only 6% of UK maths professors are women.

This is, according to the blog, the worst gender imbalance of the university subjects. I don't know what the figures are for the sciences, but I'm guessing they're not far off.

At university I once attended my boyfriend's computer science lecture. A woman! In computer science (I think they were amazed both that a woman might come to one of the lectures, and also that one of their compatriots had managed to find one). Of course I didn't understand a word of it, I'm not bright enough.

Female professions

There are many industries which are heavily skewed towards one or the other gender. I work in the arts, which is much more heavily populated by women than men.

My previous job, for a support charity, was even more imbalanced. In our entire head office at one point we had just one man (he was, of course, the boss). And there are many more female than male teachers at all levels, but at primary male teachers are extremely rare.

My husband works in the computer games industry, in which the numbers of women are gradually increasing, but are still very low. He once told me that the word for 'woman' in their office was 'receptionist', another area of work that is dominated by women.

Here is a picture of two beautiful receptionists, as decorative as the flowers which seem to be quietly consuming one of them...
Evan Bench, Paris via Wikimedia Commons

Are we too stupid?

Here are some reasons why there might be so few women pursuing scientific study and careers:

  1. We are not clever enough - we don't have the intellectual capacity to grasp the rigours of science
  2. We don't want to - there is something in the female brain that predisposes us to the arts
  3. Social conditioning - society makes us believe we are not suited to scientific studies
  4. Intimidation - we might not want to take a university course or pursue a career in an area dominated by men
There are many more reasons why this might happen, and each of these could be broken into a proper argument, after all, what is 'clever'?. For the purpose of this blog, I am making wide generalisations. I am an ex-journalist.

Science v arts

Of course, no one really knows why it happens. I hope and believe that it is not our intellectual prowess  preventing us from pursuing maths and science after age 18. I suspect that it is partly social conditioning, but maybe not entirely.

Maybe there is something in the idea that women prefer more people-centred subjects - if you study an arts subject you will spend much of your time thinking about people. In the case of my subject, English literature, it is about understanding humanity and their stories. We grapple with difficult philosophical questions, which require rigorous academic thought and understanding, but these are essentially people-centred questions. That doesn't mean they are necessarily less complex.

Maths and science on the other hand, are much more abstract subjects. With the exception of biology, they have little connection to our personal, social and emotional stories.

Women - stay away from science!

All this is just speculation. I don't have a clue why, in an age of equal education and opportunity, there are so few women pursuing scientific careers. And even if we are just naturally inclined that way, that doesn't mean we shouldn't be doing these things.

Women represent 50% of the world's population, so to disqualify ourselves from the sciences would represent a massive loss of potentially brilliant researchers, professors, doctors and teachers, who could bring invaluable skills, experiences and a different gender perspective to these areas.

The gender imbalance, whyever it exists, is all the more reason to encourage girls and women that the sciences are a viable area of study and work for them, in which we have as much right and chance as men to succeed.


  1. I think it often starts very young - something I am noticing more, now we have a young child. Just about everything you buy for children and babies is gender centric - from the blue v pink debate to more subtle differences. Actually, the blue/pink thing drives me mad, and sometimes it's seem impossible to buy anything subtle at all. It's all already decided.

    I would love our daughter to be into science, if she wanted, and I am certainly going to give her the option of playing with toys which help encourage that choice. Dinosaurs and animals help introduce biological science, while computer games can help certain development, and of course building with bricks is a universal joy.

    But parents need help. It's not something you can legislate, and I am sure schools are mostly pretty good, but here's a great example of what we're up against.

    I loved lego. Still do - it's brilliant. I still have lots of lego, which I will give to my daughter (if I can still play with it too).'s for boys, isn't it? Must be - Lego have (finally) launched a girls version!

    Just horrendous.

  2. Interesting points! Personally, I am interested in some parts of Maths and Science but other things interest me so much more - such as languages, cultures, arts, music. A lot of it is left v. right brain hemisphere stuff too. The thought of working as an accountant scares me, not because I think I wouldn't be capable (after training etc) but because I would die of boredom in a job like that. I think women are more likely to choose subjects and school and jobs that they enjoy because are far more productive when they are happy. Men seem to go for jobs which would be well rewarded with pay or status.

    I am getting more and more 'traditional/old-fashioned' in my ways and perspectives the more I travel, the older I get and I definitely changed a lot when I had my son.

    Because I am a single mum, my son has no real male influence - he is totally surrounded by women (poor boy!). He has never been to nursery or many toddler groups but strangely enough, he is far more interested in playing with cars than dolls. I am a bit of a hippy mum, so if he likes pink, I let him have pink. I bought him some dolls clothes for Christmas and although he sometimes plays dressing teddies and dolls, he much prefers cars, trucks, train sets, building things. Also when he interacts with other boys, they end up playing wrestling games and when he plays with girls, they bring out the more creative side in him. He does play alone a lot with little farm and zoo figures but when I listen to his little scenarios, they usually involve people 'crashing', and needing 'nee-nars' :-) And he likes to make sure all the animals have enough food to eat- that's definitely a boy thing :-)

    Just thought of something else - I totally hate guns and so don't have anything like them in the house, even water pistols. Somewhere my son has learnt about guns because he picked up a cleaning spray bottle and started aiming it at me making appropriate shooting noises!! Ha ha!! We don't have TV, so he's not picked it up here, must have been at somebody else's house - but again - a typical 'boy thing'.

    This all said, his favourite colour seems to be pink ;-)