What does a scientist look like?

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Less than 3 out of 10 physics A-levels are taken by girls. Female employees make up only 13% of the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) workforce. Is it nature or nurture that turns women off science, and does their lack of participation really matter?

Biology dictates that men have better spatial awareness, and women are better at empathy and reading emotions, right? So it’s only natural that boys should aim for a career in science and women should well er, not, right? Wrong!

Brain male or female?Studies show that while exposure to testosterone in the womb does impact on brain development, differences between male and female brains as a whole are smaller than differences within groups of males and groups of females.

Claims that sex differences are hard wired are pretty hard to justify when you take into account that the brain is plastic – the structure and pathways change over time depending on life experiences.  It’s not that men are from Mars and women from Venus, but gender stereotypes, the lack of role models, and the way ‘science’ is taught and marketed that turn girls off a STEM career.

Gender equality in science is not ‘just’ a women’s issue – research shows that creativity, innovation (and profit margins) are at their peak in gender diverse teams. So it’s great that there are some top initiatives on the go to ensure that the STEM workforce of the future isn’t quite so mono-gendered.

2012 saw the birth of Sciencegrrl, a grassroots organisation which encourages policy makers, media representatives, teachers and schools to promote women in STEM. As well as a growing online community it now boasts 17 local UK local chapters so members can connect in real life too.

Female scientists’ contributions have been underrepresented and now The Women in Science Research Network is investigating how a better knowledge of historical women’s involvement in science can improve how women experience science today. In 2014 the British Science Association committed to renaming two of its five prestigious award lectures after inspirational women in STEM, redressing the former all male line up.

lego picAggressive gender segregation of toys may increase producers’ profits but it impacts on the way kids see their place in the world. In 2014 women’s minister Jenny Willott met with toy manufacturers to urge them to move away from pink princess toy culture and help girls see that science isn’t just male territory. It’s positive that Lego – a manufacturer often seen as perpetuating gender stereotypes – recently introduced a whole team of female scientist figures to its product range.

There’s been heated debate about whether traditional ways of working and leadership styles within the science industry favour the participation of men over women. It’s argued that the current move away from science research as an abstract, content-driven, individual pursuit to a collaborative, project- and enquiry-based effort will encourage the involvement of women.

The future is looking brighter for women in STEM.