A Commentary by Ben A. Barres, NAture Vol 442, pg 133, 13th July 2006
Prof. Barres should be commended for a frank, honest and, at times, personal reflection on the notion that women are not advancing in science because of innate inability. The sentiment that women make bad scientists because of a lack of aptitude has been publicized several times lately most famously by Harvard University president Larry Summers, in an essay by Peter Lawrence and the work of Simon Baron-Cohen.
Men are allegedly better equipped to do science because of their abilities to systematize, analyze and be more forgetful of others. Women empathise and are communicative and caring by comparison. This view is disputed in this article, and an alternative set of hypotheses proposed.
Barres proposes that women are not advancing in science because of discrimination. This discrimination is intrinsic within society and occurs at every level for women. It includes girls being told that competitive sports make them too masculine, that girls don’t do science, and also involves women’s achievements being less recognized than men’s. For example, one study found that women applying for research grants needed to be 2.5 times more productive than men in order to be considered equally competent. It is also noted (and rightfully so) that women are as guilty of discriminating against other women as men are.
Lets take action then, and start ending this discrimination. Barres suggests a series of steps:-
1. Make academic and scientific institutions have more diverse leadership.
2. Run fair job searches, based on merit on an even playing field.
3. Speak out. End discrimination by speaking out against prejudice and being responsible for your own actions. Support those who do speak out.
4. Enhance fairness in any competitive scenarios. Awards, grant competitions, promotion competitions must be conducted fairly and by a diverse committee.
5. Teach young scientists the skills they need to thrive – self confidence, a strong sense of fairness, being a presence in a room, giving great presentations and dealing with academics.
Science may be a ‘popularity contest’ but if we all get together we can do something about it.