Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Why our world needs women in science

Last week, the Times Education Supplement ran a story with the headline ‘Gender equality in science would “deny human nature”’. Reporting on a recent education conference, the article cited Gijsbert Stoet, a (male) psychologist at the University of Glasgow who has declared that trying to get more women into science was a was a waste of effort because innate differences meant that boys and girls would always be drawn to different subjects and careers.

This is, of course, nonsense. As many girls as boys study science at GCSE and while fewer study maths and physics at A level, girls do better than boys. And though the history of science is built around stories of great male discoveries, whether it is the codebreakers at Bletchley Park, Watson and Crick’s discovery of the structure of DNA or Richard Doll’s research into the link between smoking and cancer, in so many cases the crucial work was carried out by (overlooked) female scientists.

But as well as irritating women like me who love science, articles like this (which appear on a regular basis) perpetuate a mythical view of science which ultimately will only serve to damage science – and its place in our society. Because, although science is undoubtedly one of the greatest achievements of human ingenuity, based as it is around the notion of truth and objectivity, it is also very much a product of society – or a product of our male-biased society to be more precise. Science and its history has been developed by men, based on their knowledge, perspectives and values, to address their visions and aims. Most of the time that coincides with the wishes of the other half of us, but we should not be surprised when they say it is something that women are inherently incapable of doing. Nor should we be surprised when science displays the characteristics of other male-dominated industries like financial services – the focus on individual goals and achievements rather than teamwork, competition rather than collaboration, or power-seeking rather than consensus, for instance.

But we should be concerned. Because the world, science and its place in our society has changed. From mobile technologies that are extending our friendship circles or surveillance technologies that challenge our sense of privacy, to personalised medicines that are changing the way we treat illness (and fund the NHS), or emerging areas like synthetic biology that have the potential to make us rethink what life itself is, science and technology is changing how we think, act and feel in profound ways. We can no longer separate the social or ethical effects of science and technology from the science itself. As we saw with the debate around GM, the ‘people’ side of science has become as important as the ‘rational’ side.

As well as our relationship with science and technology becoming more entangled, so too are the challenges ahead. Male-dominated science has been very good at understanding and solving things that can be reduced to the sum of its parts – such as infectious diseases of the west and computing. But the big problems ahead – like feeding, growing world population, tackling health issues like obesity, dealing with climate change and creating a more equal society – are all far more complex and entangled. If science is to keep its place at the problem-solving centre of our society, it has to have something to say to address these problems. And, while it is almost impossible to imagine any other way of understanding the world offering more effective solutions, the current, male-dominated form of science still does not seem to have the interdisciplinary, collaborative and holistic approaches that will be needed to produce effective and socially acceptable answers to these problems.

To keep its place in the 21st century, science needs all of the perspectives it can get. In the face of urgent challenges like this, saying that women, by nature, are not fit to do science runs the risk that society will conclude that science, by nature, is not fit to solve our problems.


Melanie Smallman is co-chair of SERA, the Labour environment campaign, and deputydDirector of the UK Hub for Responsible Research and Innovation


Photo: Argonne National Laboratory

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Melanie Smallman

is co-chair of SERA

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