Breaking the cycle of inequality

This post commemorates International Women’s Day (8 March), which celebrates the social, political and economic achievements of women while focusing world attention on areas requiring further action. The theme for 2014 is Inspiring Change and it encourages advocacy for women’s advancement everywhere in every way. Women’s equality has made positive gains but the world is still unequal. IWD calls for challenging the status quo for women’s equality and vigilance inspiring positive change.

At a time when there are equal numbers of men and women studying science at university, it would appear we have succeeded in turning the tables of inequality. Yet many females are still not pursuing careers in science after completing their degrees and they continue to be vastly underrepresented in specific subject areas.

In a study of 2011/2012 graduates in the UK, just 17.4% computer science graduates were women, as were only 14.3% in engineering & technology. Needless to say, men are underrepresented in other subject fields; just 17.9% of medical science graduates and 20% of veterinary science graduates were male, demonstrating how many subjects still adhere to gender stereotypes.

Additionally, of the women who are obtaining undergraduate degrees in science, many are dropping out very early on in their careers. Among European universities, in 2006, 36% of doctoral recipients were female. By junior faculty level, only 33% were female and by senior faculty level this had fallen to just 11%. Likewise, just 8.7% of engineering professionals are female.

There are many different reasons why women are not pursuing careers in science and technology, one of them being a subconscious gender bias favouring men in the sciences. This gender bias can be detected by a simple online test which assesses how easy we find it to group male or female words such as brother and aunt with either science words like biology or humanities words like music. According to research, 70% of people across 34 countries displayed implicit gender bias.

Previous research shows that female engineering students hold weaker prejudices against women in science than male engineering students or humanities students of either sex. In addition, implicit bias is negatively associated with maths grades, implying that many girls believe so strongly that they have no place in the sciences that they become a self-fulfilling prophesy.

Intrigued by the origins of this gender bias, we carried out two studies examining the presence of female scientific contributors in the UK press.

In the first analysis, we looked at 102 articles from The Guardian over the period of a month to discern how frequently women are represented and whether this was affected by the sex of the author. The results, albeit probably not statistically significant, were a real eye opener. Female journalists were underrepresenting women more than male journalists were.

We found that in articles written by a female author, just 16.7% of the first interviewees were women, whilst in articles written by a male author, women constituted some 24% of first interviewees. What’s more, when female authors were quoting women, the quotes were an average of 4 lines compared to 9.9 lines for men. In comparison, male authors quoted women for an average of 6 lines, and men for 7.2 lines.

In a second study, we analysed the sex of contributors in 126 science stories that appeared in the Daily Telegraph in 2003 and 2013. Again, a pattern of female under-representation emerged across the entire sample, where only 26.1% of named contributions were women. Remarkably, when only looking at contributions from lay-people, females provided 50.7% of the quotes. However, in quotes from scientists, the female presence sank to 22.6%.

In the decade that passed between 2003 and 2013, there was no significant change in the gender bias. This lack of longitudinal improvement is disappointing considering the recent emergence of the social media revolution some are hailing as ‘fourth wave feminism.’

It was also interesting to note that in stories about health topics, females provided 30.2% of named contributions, but only 6.7% in technology stories. It could be that this disparity originates from the differing proportion of women working in these scientific fields. However, it is also possible that it stems from the journalistic tendency to match a piece to its perceived audience, with technology stories aimed at a predominantly male readership.

Given the influential power of the media to either reinforce or challenge our ideas of social norms, an underrepresentation of women in science-based media may be stoking the subconscious belief that women have no place in science. Many studies have shown this subconscious bias in college-age students and even in pre-school children. Female students may subsequently be concluding that they don’t belong in the sciences because they don’t see many women role-models.

It is unlikely that journalists are consciously omitting female voices from their pieces. This draws us to consider that the underrepresentation of female scientists in the media is also due to the widely held inherent bias against women’s involvement in science.

So if an underrepresentation of women in science media is in part fuelling an implicit prejudice against women in science, and it is this prejudice which in turn causes an underrepresentation of women in science media, is it not time for journalists to take an active stance, break the cycle and represent women equally?

Lauren Hoskin-Parr and Daisy McInnerney are  currently studying for an MSc in Science Communication at Imperial College London.

Image Credit: Lynn