‘Why are there still so few women in science?’

On 11th February 2015 Pembroke’s science society, the Stokes Society, hosted an exciting collaborative event with PemWomen@30.

The question to be discussed, ‘Why are there still so few women in science?’, has been a controversial and long-standing debate and with a panel of highly diverse and celebrated figures from across the university, the evening promised to be an interesting contribution to the issue. President of the Stokes Society, Cameron Dashwood (2013), who also chaired the discussion, said that he intended the debate to focus on the central disputes about the possible social and biological causes of the gender discrepancy in the scientific fields.

The evening was opened by Professor Gail Davey (1984), who was among the original cohort of women students to enter Pembroke. She recounted her experiences across a lifetime in science, emphasising that from the outset, Pembroke and university life more generally offered few women as role models for her scientific aspirations.

The discussion then moved to the wider panel, consisting of Professor Simon Baron-Cohen, Professor Anne Davis, Dr Patricia Fara and Dr Liberty Barnes. Much was made over the course of the evening of a ‘pipeline’, which proceeds in a similar fashion across all areas of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math education). To a varying degree, women scientists at undergraduate level are present and succeed alongside their male counterparts. However, distinctions become much more noticeable in the move between postdoctoral work and academic appointment. Ultimately, the theme of the discussion seemed to be that, whilst biological differences do exist and can shape our preferences, there is a significant extent to which the presence of women is dependent on social constructions, self-perceptions and the hegemonic masculinities that pervade society more generally.

The evening was intellectually stimulating for both scientists and non-scientists alike, with a highly participatory audience discussion testifying to the relevance and personal nature of the debate. It is a struggle that is difficult and speaks to problems that women face in many other walks of life – from the pervasiveness of status characteristics to the practical concerns of motherhood and childcare. It remains to be seen how such discussions might translate to the reality of statistics and underrepresentation. But if in 30 years Pembroke has transformed from an almost exclusively male environment to a highly diverse and inclusive college, then we might try to be optimistic about the future for women in science.

Lucy Lim (HSPS, 2013)