21st Century Women in Science: an Interview with a Physicist

Picture of By Sofia Neumayer Toimil

By Sofia Neumayer Toimil

In 2018, UNESCO revealed that globally 70% of all scientific researchers were men. This can have varying reasons ranging from gender bias to lack of higher education access. In this interview, I will be speaking with a physicist, nano-technologist, and researcher, who earned her Physics degree in Santiago de Compostela, Spain. We will be discussing the role of media representation, gender bias, and stereotyping in the STEM field and how she has seen this develop over time. 

To start off with, Margaret Rossiter, an American historian of science developed the concept of hierarchical segregation, which states that the higher the level of power, the fewer females are participating. Have you realized a decline in the number of women as you progressed into more influential roles throughout your university education and career? 

Definitively. The ratio of females to males decreases continuously from the studies, through the PhD and postdoctoral phases, and much more strongly at professorship levels. This is called the ‘leaky pipeline’.

In STEM subjects especially, stereotyping has an effect on the perception of women, since people associate characteristics such as being nurturing and warm with women, and characteristics like being strong and influential with men. Do you believe the traditional paradigms about women play a role in how often they are represented in the media and higher decision-making roles in science? 

In general people of all ages associate professions such as scientists, engineers, directors, CEOs mostly with men. And in fact, the percentage of men in such positions is significantly higher. So it is a self-feeding system. The media will continue portraying male scientists as long as the female percentage is lower and as long as there are no policies in place that actively counteract this tendency. It is the responsibility of politicians and media heads to contribute to changing this culture.  

Another thing that can be noted about the STEM field, is that there seems to be a lack of female scientist role models. When you finished school and were choosing your career path, were there any female role models in science that you knew of at the time? And do you think it would make a difference to young women to have a role model female figure to look up to, seeing that STEM is still such a male-dominated field?

I did not have any active scientist as a role model at that time. I had read the biography of Marie Curie, which I was fascinated by, like many others, and I had excellent (male) science teachers who played a determining role in my career choice. I had fun learning science, and I was very curious about it. I loved doing experiments in the Physics lab during my last school year. At that time, I was not aware that Physics would be such a male-dominated field. During my first year of Physics, we were around 10-20 female students out of 400… In my entire university education, I had only 1 female professor for a few months. All others were male professors. In retrospect, I do think that it would have been good to have also female professors to look up to. And I think this relates to your previous question too. Media, writers, movie makers, scientific journal editors, and teachers, all can play a determining role in providing young girls (and boys!) with female role models in science.  

In 2013, journalist Christie Aschwanden developed the “Finkbeiner test“, a checklist to avoid gender bias in articles about women, by asking them to avoid describing female scientists by highlighting their stereotypically feminine traits. This test was created after a criticized 2013 New York Times obituary for the rocket scientist Yvonne Brill that started with the words: “She made a mean beef stroganoff”. Do you believe that men are recognized more greatly for their scientific accomplishments, whereas women’s gender is often at the forefront in media coverage? 

Gender-biased questions are something that women have to suffer in every profession: from scientists to professional athletes to artists. To address and change gender bias and gender-biased questions, we must increase societal awareness and actively protest. And not only the person who is being interviewed. It is also important that testimonies and readers or spectators notice and protest too. 

In 2015, 2 female scientists submitted a life sciences paper to the scientific journal PLOS ONE. The authors received an email informing them that their paper had been rejected due to its poor quality and suggested that a male author be added in order to improve the quality of the paper. Have you ever had an experience in which you had the feeling an opinion or idea of a male colleague was valued more than your own? 

Unfortunately yes. It is a known and studied phenomenon. If a woman presents an idea, it may not be registered or addressed, while when a male colleague repeats the same idea, even shortly after, it will be. Here too, awareness needs to be raised, and both male and female colleagues must actively learn to acknowledge and avoid such situations. And obviously, gender-biased comments by any reviewer must be called out by the editor and should not be accepted. 

On a final note, have you noticed a positive change over time in the perception and number of female scientists? Do you think that company and government initiatives to get more young girls into STEM subjects are paying off?

I notice that awareness and pressure from the policymakers are increasing, and this is having a positive effect. However, the progress is slow. Government initiatives to attract girls into STEM careers are necessary and welcomed. However, parents and teachers, have also very important roles, since certain attitudes and unconscious biases can influence the children’s choices at a young age. New initiatives to raise the awareness of parents, and middle and high school teachers on gender-bias, unconscious bias, and role models in STEM should be implemented and followed up. For example, I heard once a middle school science teacher state that in the class boys were “better” than girls, “as usual”, “since they were more actively participating”. This is wrong and shows an unawareness of the different attitudes of girls and boys at the time to answer questions, and participate in class. Boys tend to answer more often while also more often delivering an incorrect answer, while girls will wait until they are very certain before they raise their hand. But this different attitude says nothing about their aptitude for science. Teachers which are well trained in this topic can have a very positive influence on levering the participation, properly assessing the student’s capabilities, and motivating girls to pursue STEM careers.

It is evident that there is still a lot of work to be done in terms of deconstructing harmful gender biases about female scientists and eliminating barriers for girls in STEM subjects. Although there is active engagement in promoting science careers for women, there is still a long way to go so that the number of women in science, especially in higher positions, can be increased, allowing young girls to receive the same treatment and opportunities in the field.


Cover: Polina Tankilevitch

Edited by: Yili Char

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