Perhaps it really doesn’t matter if women study science. After all, men control most of the world’s resources,they have most of the decision-making power, and the shape of the world seems to be formed predominantly by, men. Multiple desires and experiences are centered and platformed as normative with the significance of every other experience and worldview only receiving value that is based on its proximity to men. And as a result, look at the world we have.
Despite so many scientific and technological advances, rising global inequality still denies about 811 million people — about 10% of the world’s population — a simple meal every day. It denies about 400 million people essential healthcare and our drive for economic growth at all costs is now damaging planetary health through climate change.
If we reflect honestly on our collective reality we will see a deeply troubled world facing increasingly numerous and compounding crises, much of which can be prevented by going beyond singular blinkers.
IS THERE GENDER BIAS IN SCIENCE?
So, what have we lost by not insisting on a gender lens in science? I’m starting there because the narrative that I too often hear is that science, a practice defined by logic, research, and data, is gender-neutral, so theoretically, a scientist’s gender doesn’t influence the work that they produce. This is a myth.
The reality is that we bring ourselves into every human endeavour, and to think that science is any different, is to create an illusion of false objectivity.
Science is not an objective enterprise, it is very much situated within a political, economic, and cultural context that is gender biased. The statistics on women in STEM tell us that story very clearly. In sub-Saharan Africa, a mere 18 to 31 percent of science researchers are women, compared to 49 percent in Southeast Europe and in the Caribbean; 44 percent in Central Asia and Latin America; and 37 percent in the Arab States1.
Science, and the opportunities to shape its effects and impacts, are undoubtedly skewed and biased to favour men.
ARE SCIENTISTS REALLY NEUTRAL OBSERVERS?
How men or women design their research questions and methodology can also influence the answers we get and thus the stories we tell and the solutions that we are able to imagine.
The research into pain relief is a distinct example of how the gender lens can cause significant bias in results. Historically, research into pain relief has ignored gender differences and therefore ignored the needs of women in pain. It has been proven that women perceive more pain than men, this has in fact been demonstrated for clinical and experimental pain, both in humans and animals. These gender differences in pain and in the experience of pain relief arise from the interaction of genetic, anatomical, physiological, neuronal, hormonal, psychological, and social factors which modulate pain differently in the sexes.
Women scientists have thus fought for years to create pain medication based on the needs of female receptors but rarely get enough funding. Although the lack of resources and support women scientists are provided is a problem worldwide, we also cannot ignore that the marginalization is experienced with greater severity by women who practice science in the global south.
THE SCIENCE GENDER BIAS IN THE GLOBAL SOUTH
But what if we were to imagine a world where women were able to get the resources for the questions they are asking? This is really interesting to me, as a mother of four, who has always despaired at how many women still die in childbirth to this day. Even though it’s a global phenomenon, the overwhelming majority of maternal deaths occur in developing countries, and about two-thirds of all maternal deaths take place in sub-Saharan Africa. Nigeria and India alone account for one-third of global deaths. Data further shows us that the maternal mortality ratio in the world’s least developed countries stands at 436 deaths for every 100,000 live births, which is in stark contrast to the corresponding number – just 12 – in wealthy countries.
These are scientific issues that perhaps men are not particularly interested in addressing, but women, by virtue of being directly impacted, may be better positioned and equipped to undertake. If we had more women and girls in science with enough resources and expertise, we might begin to consider such matters as universally important and we may be able to find solutions that are unexpected, innovative, and sustainable. And investing in women scientists is not just about solving issues that are specific to the experiences of women, I believe that upskilling and resourcing female scientists would mean that we would be able to see progress across the board, including in dealing with the hunger crises which devastates most of the global south.
In developing countries, eighty percent of agricultural productivity is generally carried out by women. We are the ones cultivating the land, providing food, feeding the children, taking care of them when they’re sick and much more. If women at every level had enough scientific knowledge to raise productivity in their crops, increase yield, and to think about improving nutrition, even at the household level, it would contribute significantly to meeting even more global development goals such as reducing poverty (SDG1) and improving global health (SDG 3).
BUILD BRIDGES TO BRING MORE WOMEN INTO SCIENCE
Investing in women and girls in science is about cultivating environments of empowerment as much as it is about making information and knowledge available to them – AND it yields results. I am an example of such an investment. My whole career has been built on compensating for potential gender barriers in science education. My mother was a teacher and she sent me to a girls’ school that prioritized science. This was intentional as studies show that when girls study science with other girls it reduces the negative effects of gender stereotypes, which often define girls with potential as “nerds” and peer pressure steers them away from “uncool” subjects like science2.
The stereotype of a woman in science is also that she should be dull, she shouldn’t be too pretty, she should be boring, she should be generic, and she should remove her sense of authenticity, character, and personality. All of this is determined by the male gaze.
These gender stereotypes impact the way girls, from a young age, begin to construct their identities and thus, the opportunities that they see themselves as fit for. Parents and educators need to understand this and address it by offering protection and encouragement – and this encouragement needs to extend across the entire career of a woman scientist.
For me, even after my Ph.D., marriage, and four children, it felt seemingly impossible to continue a career in science. My help came from the Daphne Jackson Trust Fellowship for women returning into science after a career break, and the mentorship of Professor Jenny Cory, a world-class scientist who was at the University of Oxford at the time. I joined her brilliant team of molecular virologists where my need for flexible working hours and childcare was also accommodated. And even more importantly, the general kindness and mentorship of this support resulted in the most productive season of my life.
So, I’d like to emphasize that the key to getting more girls and women into science is encouragement, mentorship, and of course, financial opportunity. In the end, money opens doors. If you agree with me then put your money where our mouth is and support girls in some aspect of their careers and inevitably take our world to the next level.
1 Ekine, A. and Aremu, A. (2022) Making the future of African stem female, Brookings.
2 Makarova E, Aeschlimann B and Herzog W (2019) The Gender Gap in STEM Fields: The Impact of the Gender Stereotype of Math and Science on Secondary Students’ Career Aspirations. Front. Educ. 4:60. doi: 10.3389/feduc.2019.00060