The subject of women in science comes up time and time again. Or rather, why there are so few women in science. According to European Commissioner for Research Philippe Busquin, “The data demonstrate that women scientists are indeed underrepresented in key positions of scientific research.” The problem, he says, is not an emotional one, but the result of discrimination.

Understanding what the problem is seems to be key. The ‘life/work balance’ and ‘family pressures’ are usually trotted out as the reasons that women don’t make it to the top, particularly in science and academia. But what if it’s not the children’s fault? The truth could be more difficult to swallow. Speaking at the launch of the Women Physicists Speak report, Judith Glover, a sociologist at the University of Surrey, said that the question of whether it is women or the culture of science that is at fault is a potentially sensitive one. The fact that, in the UK at least, girls receive a higher proportion of A_grades in school exams and firsts at degree level serves to prove that women’s cognitive skills are not lacking. In some sciences, like medical and biological, the majority of undergraduates are now female. Even in one of the most underrepresented subjects, physics, women are more highly concentrated in the top departments.

So what of the alternative explanation? Is the culture of science — at least in some disciplines — fundamentally unattractive to women? Can this explain the “extremely poor inheritance”, cited by Brian Fender (former chief executive of the Higher Education Funding Council for England)? Looking at the numbers of US female undergraduate students by subject reveals some areas that appear especially unattractive. While over 50% of all BSc degrees are earned by women, only around 40% go to women in mathematics and chemistry, 30% in computer science, and worst of all, only around 20% in physics and engineering. At PhD level the gap is wider still, particularly in chemistry, physics, and engineering. Could it be that the largely hierarchical (and some might say almost feudal) nature of research groups makes it hard for women (and some men too) to succeed? And makes the field so unattractive that those starting out on their careers don’t even want to try?

A recent study conducted at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD) may also shed some light on the problem. Gail D. Heyman, Sangeeta Bhatia, and Bryn Martyna surveyed 238 college students to try and find out why women are more likely to quit engineering courses than men. According to Bhatia, “Many women who enter engineering majors have been told all their lives how good they are at math and science, so they tend to believe their aptitude is something they are born with. When they encounter difficulty, it can be devastating because their very identity is brought into question.” Male students, however, take it less personally and study harder or try a different approach to the problem.

So what is the answer? The UCSD researchers advocate more positive role models and mentors. Fender suggests a more team_based structure for research. Glover cautions, however, that until the problem, particularly if it is a cultural one, is defined and understood, it will be impossible to address successfully. The American Physical Society runs ‘survival’ courses for women in physics — surely such courses shouldn’t even need to exist?

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DOI: 10.1016/S1369-7021(02)01101-X