To boost innovation, sciences needs more women
Updated: Nov 21, 2018
It’s 2017. Man has walked on the moon, created a baby out of three people, and invented egg trays that sync with your phone to let you know how many eggs are left in the fridge. Yet somehow, we still haven’t come up with a pill to relieve period pain. That’s because they’re aren’t enough women in science, and research and innovation have long been restricted to the concerns that matter to men.
According to figures from the US census, the gender gap in science persists more than in other professions, particularly in the high end fields referred to as STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). In 1970, women only made up 7% of the numbers in these domains. That figure had jumped to 23% by 1990, but the rise stopped there. Two decades later, women still only make up 26% of the workforce in STEM fields. And in engineering, that number goes down to 11%.
Claudine Hermann, 70, lived these changes first hand. As late as 1992, she became the first female professor at the prestigious Polytechnique technology institute in France. « Institutional barriers for women entering science have been lowered, but there are still a wide range of cultural and social forces that dissuade them from these domains,» she explains. From an early age, parents and teachers steer daughters towards other professions. Girls also want to imitate their friends, and not end up in fields with only boys, Hermann adds. Today she is the honorary president of the Femmes et Sciences association. « It’s simple: to have excellent research and innovation, we need more women in science, »she says decisively.
It’s not just a question of sexism, it’s also an economic issue. «We are halving the potential field of innovation ! » laments Londa Schiebinger, historian of science and founder of the Gendered Innovations movement, an international collaborative born in 2009. She leads 70 natural scientists, engineers, and gender experts, dedicated to « de-gendering » research in fields as varied as car design and climate change. To do this, Schiebinger calls for the incorporation of gendered analysis into research, which can only be done by bringing women’s perspective into the lab.
The fact is, the male scientists that have lead the field for so many years haven’t been very good at taking women – ie, more than half the population – into account. And besides the loss of opportunities, that has also lead to life threatening errors. For years, women with heart disease were sent away from emergency rooms, sometimes to die at home from heart attacks, because they didn’t exhibit the standard symptoms for cardiovascular problems. Standard symptoms having being defined by those exhibited by men. Similarly, car crashes are the leading cause of fetal death related to maternal injuries, because conventional seat belts- crash tested on dummies shaped like men – do not fit pregnant women properly, according to a study by Dr Weiss, of the Center for Injury Research and Control in 2001. Even a relatively minor crash at 56km/h can cause harm.
What we think of as « science problems », the solutions we concoct and who we concoct them for, affect us all, but are often determined by who is doing the scientific inquiry. Who knows, if more women were brought into the lab, they might create transport adapted to pregnant women, diagnose heart illness in women, or even, at last, invent that magic pill for period pain.