Today (11th February) is the International Day of Women and Girls in Science. I wonder why there is such a day. Does it matter whether a scientist is a woman or a man? Does it matter whether a child studying science at school is a boy or a girl?
It shouldn’t matter. But when I searched Google Images for a drawing of a scientist, the first 26 scientists to come up were men. Most of them had a test tube in their hand and a look of evil genius on their face.
I am a scientist without a lab coat. I don’t have grey hair pointing in all directions, I wear glasses but only when driving, and I am not after world domination. I am also a female scientist, which is not unusual at all at Born in Bradford (BiB). But this is not the case everywhere.
Many women study sciences, but they are less likely to progress in their careers, and they are less likely to work full-time. Even in a workplace with more women than men, the head of the organisation is more likely to be a man. In sciences such as mathematics, physics, chemistry, informatics and engineering, men greatly outnumber women. Such differences between men and women are not necessarily bad. The problem is that some of these differences are not fair.
If female scientists work part-time because they would like to be at home with the children more, that does not seem to be unfair. But if women like to be at home with the children more because we teach girls from a young age that they should do the ‘caring’, and we teach boys that they should provide the income, that’s unfair.
If women enjoy the ‘softer sciences’, such as health sciences and psychology, more than the ‘harder sciences’, such as physics and chemistry, that does not seem unfair. But part of this is influenced by the way we raise children. If more girls played with LEGO, maybe they would be more likely to become an engineer or an architect. And if more boys were encouraged to play with dolls or look after their younger sister, maybe they would be more likely to become nurses or part-time scientists.
The suggestion that some sciences are softer, less scientific, or more feminine than others is not fair either. At BiB and BiBBS we investigate why some children and their families are healthier than others, and what we can do to improve children’s health. This is exactly what science does: learn about our lives and how the world works, test explanations, and use this to improve the future. A difference with other sciences is that we can’t use test tubes to test our ideas, and we can’t use a microscope to zoom in until we see nothing else but the thing we are interested in. We do science in the real world, with real children and their families. This means we have to understand their lives and the world they live in. For example, if we are interested in helping children with asthma, we cannot just look at the inflammation in their lungs. We also have to think about air pollution in the city, damp and mould in the house, the lifestyle of their parents and genetic factors, which are related to asthma. Understanding health and disease in the real world is difficult, and we could use more female and male scientists to help us.
Raising and educating boys and girls more equally means they will have a chance to learn about the same topics, develop the same skills, and have the confidence they need to be happy and successful in life, whether they decide to become scientists or not. And confidence matters for grown-ups too. For many of our Better Start Bradford projects, empowering parents and giving them confidence is very important. You can find out more at www.betterstartbradford.org.uk.
Enjoy the International Day of Women and Girls in Science!