Today is international women’s day. That’s something to celebrate – women have made boundless contributions to our scientific and cultural advancement, from Marie Curie and the Bronte sisters to Ada Yonath and Dolly Parton.
But in another sense it’s an indictment of our culture that we feel we have to make special efforts to highlight these people’s work just because they are women. Should great contributions not be recognised simply on their own merit? Of course this is the ideal, but history tells us that ideals are rarely realised. Marie Curie was denied election to the French Academy of Sciences, despite discovering two new elements. The Brontes initially published many of their novels under male-sounding names to disguise their gender.
But while authors, artists, musicians and actors (barring the Rising Star award nominees for this year’s Baftas) seem to have made more progress in overcoming the burden of gender discrimination, despite the best of intentions, the statistics show that women are consistently under-represented in top leadership positions in industry and academia. There are a few exceptions – including (not before time) the RSC’s first ever female president, Lesley Yellowlees from the University of Edinburgh,UK. The deficit translates into media representation as well – how are we to inspire the next generation of female scientists (or businesswomen, or even politicians and journalists) when the ‘experts’ they see and hear consulted on TV, radio and in the newspapers are up to 80% male?
It’s not through lack of effort, but a result of the structure and systems behind business and academia. There are a barrage of initiatives and schemes aimed at overcoming these differences – the US National Science Foundation has committed to efforts to retain female graduates (of which there are more than men across the US in science subjects) in science-related research and industry, and schemes to try and change how the academic system works to make it easier for women to return to academia. Channel 4 and Sky News have pledged to up the number of female experts they consult to at least 30%.
Here’s hoping some of these measures begin to redress the balance and level the playing field a little. Maybe one day we’ll get over looking at race, gender, age and dress sense, and judge people on their ideas and actions. Call me a dreamer if you will…