I bet you don't read that phrase much, but I think we should all start thinking more about it. I recently heard a talk by Brian Nosek at the EMBO meeting in Nice: a most eloquent and cogent presentation of the reasons for which women fall short of capitalising on their clearly equal ability in science as men. There are many reasons, but the broad categories are relatively few, and include social conditioning, prejudice (and discrimination) and educational conditioning. To combat the negative social and educational conditioning that women – starting in childhood in junior school – receive with regards to their abilities in maths, science and engineering, it is possible to apply counter conditioning.
A nice example that Nosek gave was of acute conditioning before a maths exam: two groups of similarly aged female students were spoken to before sitting the exam: one group was – subtly – reminded of the fact that they were women, and received subliminal conditioning to become more aware of the social norms that tend to be applied to women: they performed less well in the exam than the group that had more positive conditioning before the exam. Long term conditioning as part of educational programmes can also have a very significant effect on the success of women in maths, science and engineering disciplines, proving that women are most certainly not inferior to men in these disciplines. But males are socially conditioned to have greater confidence in their abilities in maths, science and engineering.
But what about another discipline; one that is mostly considered the preserve of women, rather than men: raising a family, a discipline in which women definitely have more confidence than men. Having enjoyed Nosek's presentation so much, I had to ask the question: is part of the problem of women in science caused by an equally stereotypical perception of the role of men and their abilities? If more emphasis were put on their role as ‘family makers’ and more confidence and recognition placed in their abilities as such, might that help? Indeed, that is a topic that Nosek considers important. And it is clearly one part of the equation, but I see another too: men's confidence in their maths/science/engineering abilities helps them get where they want to in those careers, but those careers are not very confidence inspiring for a man who wishes to be a family man as well. Discrimination and lesser career opportunities will certainly apply to a man who wishes to take significant time off for family – and perhaps not just once. However, the problem is not as acutely visible as that of women, because very few men actually do take time off for family.
So it appears to me that the root of the problem of women in science is as much a lack of attention to the stereotypes of men in society and work; and to be completely emancipated from sexual differentiation: the problem is really one of ‘people’ in science. But such emancipation is a very ambitious aim to achieve in one fell swoop, and here's reason: work hierarchy is controlled mainly by men, not by just any ‘people’. So let's start with the men. One of the reasons for which I believe we need to build a ‘men in science’ perspective onto the women in science one is that it is the men at the top who can change the system most radically. Many women have magnificently championed the problems of women in science, and it's been a hard battle. How many men have stood up to try and change the work culture for men too? It is a self-perpetuating system in which, if we are not careful, women will become the convenient excuse for not doing something for all: we will only focus on their disadvantaged status, and not actually tackle the foundations of the system that disadvantages all who wish to take an active role in raising the next generation.
The focus on women in science has been very important for raising what is, in fact, largely a problem for both sexes. Now it is time to shift gear, and – with the awareness that family men face similar problems to family women – do something to make scientific careers for everyone more compatible with having a family.