Think about a scientist, any scientist.
Is it Albert Einstein? How about Bill Nye? Stephen Hawking?
Are you thinking of a female scientist?
If so, congratulations: you’re very special. If you’re not, however, don’t feel bad – 99% of people probably think of male scientists automatically too.
This is not necessarily evidence that we live in an incredibly sexist world that only cares about male accomplishment. If anything, it makes total sense: most famous scientists are men, because men were the ones who actually did science. Until World War II, women were barely in the workforce, let alone making enormous strides in scientific research, and most fields were dominated by men until the Women’s Liberation Movement of the 1960’s and women gained financial independence. Even in to the 1980’s, women were still largely expected to abandon their careers to raise children, effectively preventing many from devoting their lives to scientific research. However, with an increased popularization of daycare and a drift from the “breadwinner” mentality, it is now more common to see successful women in a variety of positions, particularly in scientific fields.
The rates of women in science have risen dramatically in recent years, considering the massive push to encourage more girls to pursue science, technology, engineering, and/or mathematics (collectively known as “STEM”). According to Statistics Canada, women accounted for 59% of STEM graduates in the 25-34 age range. However, according to the same study, women are overall significantly less likely to pursue a STEM degree, regardless of mathematical ability, and that those who do are more likely to be unemployed or are paid an average of $5000 less than their male counterparts. While the study is from 2010, recent events have proved that there is still a long way to go.
Donna Strickland recently made headlines for winning the Nobel Prize for Physics for her work on developing chirped pulse amplification. The newfound fame did not arise from the scientific breakthrough, or becoming the 26th Canadian to be honoured, but because she is only the third woman to ever be awarded the prize for Physics. In fact, only 49 of a total 893 Nobel Laureates are women, a frankly disturbing percentage that will, however, undoubtedly grow as that 59% of female STEM graduates become scientific achievers.
The thing is, it is imperative we do not label these graduates as “women scientists.” They are women and they are scientists, but more importantly they are people who should be recognized for their achievements. For far too long, women in science have been labelled as Women in Science, as if it is a title that you can only earn with a bachelor’s degree and a uterus. Women do not succeed in science by virtue of being female (contrary to popular belief, being a female is not an outstanding qualification on a job application), but because they are the best people to do the job – as it should be. STEM initiatives targeting girls exist to give women the drive to pursue sciences, but they do not provide advantages based on gender, nor does the recognition of outstanding women hinge on the recipients being female. Representation is important, but do not think for a second that successful women are only successful because they are women.
Special thanks to Riverside teachers Melissa Jackson, Debra Mackenzie-Pearce, and Heidi Tilsner for their invaluable input on developing this article. The authour’s original thoughts were scattered, but they helped organize the article into something comprehensible.
Photo credit to Art Science Gallery.