The obstacle course

From the practices of their institutions to the prejudices of their research directors, a whole range of obstacles exist to slow down women’s scientific careers.

Who says girls are not interested in maths? There’s no way of stopping them… © Courtesy European Researchers’ Night – Finland, cat. 2
Who says girls are not interested in maths? There’s no way of stopping them… © Courtesy European Researchers’ Night – Finland, cat. 2

Dress a baby in blue, and name it Adam. Then take the same baby, dress it in pink and name it Eve. Have the two play in turn in front of adults and record their impressions. In the first case it will be found ‘bouncy’ and ‘lively’, in the second ‘charming’ and ‘feminine’. Any number of such experiments have been carried out, and in their different ways they all come to the same conclusions: that our expectations and what we imagine about a child are very much oriented, right from its birth, by its gender.

The nature and effects of this social context on women’s relationship to science is beginning to be seriously studied. All these discussions show that, throughout their development, from early childhood to adulthood, women are immerged in a network of opinions and social beliefs which work together to fashion their future.

Childhood and adolescence

For Rosalind Barnett of the Woman’s Studies Research Center of the University of Brandeis (USA), speaking at a conference organised by the SET-Routes association (1), “the preschool years and the primary cycle are the foundations which will shape the effects of influences later in life”. Her remarks are based on different studies showing the clear differences of treatment by gender. When, for example, a group of children is filmed in a science museum, boys and girls spend more or less the same amount of time looking at the exhibits, but parents spend twice as much time explaining them to their sons than to their daughters. Interest in and aptitude for science seem to be therefore conditioned from an early age. And the current prejudice which says that women are less gifted in these subjects (in particular maths) can generate self-fulfilling prophecies. In this way an opinion shared by adults – parents and teachers – is taken on board by the child and becomes a ‘truth’.

Other personality traits are also shaped by these first years, in particular features which will become decisive in the construction of a professional scientific career. In this way the authors of Athena Unbound (2) relate that, in a primary class, boys interrupt the teacher with their comments eight times more often than girls. But nonetheless it is the latter who are told off more, and who are asked to raise their hand before talking. In general, education promotes self-affirmation and competitive attitudes among boys, while girls tend to be rewarded for their modesty and good collective behaviour. “And when puberty comes”, notes Henry Etzkowitz, “these cumulative cultural messages are reinforced by the powerful need for peer acceptance and approval.” It is difficult to escape from social stereotypes…

An article signed by various researchers from the Finnish university of Turku (3) on the behaviour of 12 year olds revealed moreover that pupils of the two genders had more or less equivalent marks during a maths tests but that the boys, before receiving their results, were on average more optimistic about their performance than the girls. This difference in self-confidence appears to be true for most women scientists. It would appear that female students are more quickly destabilised by difficulties and that the importance of the mentor is greater for them. Many women researchers recall that a particular teacher or thesis director played a key role in their professional future through their encouragement or advice at critical stages. This type of meeting is often decisive for avoiding the famous leaky pipeline syndrome, a metaphor that illustrates the various ‘leaks’ – or decreases in the number of women – which take place at each stage of the careers of women in science, from university all the way to taking up positions of responsibility.

Floors and ceilings

Annalisa Casini, a social psychologist at the Free University of Brussels, has in turn studied the well-known phenomenon of the ‘glass ceiling’, this invisible barrier that blocks women in their careers. Sexism obviously plays a part. “But other factors also tend to keep women penned up in subalternate tasks, like for example their tendency towards hyper-specialisation, making them both indispensable where they already are and less likely to move elsewhere.

In this case one talks of a ‘sticky floor’”, she adds. The explanation is provided by French sociologist Catherine Marry, Deputy Director of the Mage (Marché du travail et genre – Labour market and gender): “The more frequent professional success of male researchers is linked to their greater capacity to delegate the ‘housekeeping’ jobs to others, more often than not women, not only in the domestic sphere, but also in the professional one.”

In these research results, we find ourselves very close to the standards of the traditional division of roles, tying women to the private sphere (family) and men to the public sphere (work). The desire for excellence and the bitter competition on which meritocracies are founded – and in particular high-level science – would appear to correspond better to the male norm.

Couples and networks

But another threat to their professional life comes from the two-body problem that threatens scientist couples wanting each to pursue their careers. A study by EMBO, published in 2007, (4) shows for example, that where the couple plants roots geographically is generally a function of the man’s career. It is he that chooses the post-doc and then the job that best corresponds to his competencies and interests, while his wife or companion is reduced to working around it. In this way she risks not finding herself in the research centre that best suits her, publishing less and in less important journals. Careers are further unbalanced when children are born. Women often take two or three months’ maternity leave whilst men continue working. In this way we arrive at the surprising conclusion that not only do women researchers have less interesting careers than their male counterparts, but they have a lower-than-average number of children…

An additional male advantage appears to be the ability to insert oneself into networks. If we are to believe Henry Etzkowitz, success as a scientist results from a combination of ‘personal capital’ (individual qualities) and ‘social capital’ (networks). High-ranking scientists (a majority of whom are men) play a role of ‘social capital bankers’. They meet promising young scientists and introduce them into their ‘group’, with the tacit understanding that the juniors will repay the favour when they have advanced in their profession. These ‘mandarins’ spontaneously put more trust in male young hopes, which explains in particular why men tend to get the plum positions.

It is therefore not surprising that, even in a field like social sciences, where the number of doctoral students is equally divided between the two sexes, 15 to 20 % only of teaching posts go to women. A figure that Franck Gannon, former EMBO president and currently Director- General of the Science Foundation Ireland, described in an editorial entitled The women issue (5) as “a flagrant injustice”, going on to warn that this debate will not “simply go away – it will stay and haunt us until inequality disappears.”

Yves Sciama

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  2. Henry Etzkowitz, Carol Kemelgor et Brian Uzzi, Athena Unbound: The Advancement of Women in Science and Technology, Cambridge University Press, 2000.
  3. Anu Nurmi, Markku Hannula, Hanna Maijala & Erkki Pehkonen, On Pupils’self confidence in mathematics : gender comparisons- Document downloadable on
  4. M.Sanchez Mazas & A.Casini, Femmes au pouvoir... mais quel pouvoir ? Le plafond de verre en question. in S. Stoffel (Ed.), Femmes et Pouvoir, Université des femmes, Bruxelles, 2007 – Autres publications :