Women in Science

I: Aim

To bring historians’ research into the educational and work experiences of women in science, technology and engineering (STEM) to the notice of policy makers working to address the current underrepresentation of women in STEM.

II: Key messages

  • Supportive science teachers, particularly female teachers, have been fundamental in encouraging women to study science.
  • Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, women in STEM have experienced a ‘double-bind’, where hard-won access to education did not guarantee subsequent access to scientific employment.
  • Medicine, veterinary medicine and biosciences represented early opportunities for women in science from the late-c19th because the pursuit of scientific knowledge was more acceptable if it had an application centred on caring or related to ‘real life’. As such, women working in these fields often fabricated narratives about the ‘vocational’ nature of their decision to pursue science rather than admit it represented an interesting and challenging career, as well as a means of making a living.
  • There is a long tradition of designated ‘women’s work’ in science and engineering, where routine laboratory work or technical librarianship was seen as more appropriate to women’s ‘special skills’ or ‘unique talents’. As such, even in disciplines such as chemistry where relatively large numbers of women have been employed since the 1920s, many talented women were stuck ‘at the bench’ rather than being promoted to more challenging research work.
  • Women working in areas such as astronomy, biology and medicine have benefitted from formal and informal networks, such women’s societies and laboratories, where preference was given to women for work experience, assistantships and jobs. This has been essential in sustaining women’s careers in discriminatory working environments. The patronage of individual men has also been important in gaining access to more privileged areas of the professions.
  • Many women in science have found the use of their discipline’s pioneers as role models alienating rather than inspirational, as it placed emphasis on the ‘exceptional’ rather than the attainable nature of their achievements.
  • Throughout the 20th century women have utilised their entrepreneurial skills in science. For example, when faced with discrimination in the workplace, many women in veterinary medicine chose to establish their own small animal practices in the 1920s and 30s as a mean of utilising their training.

III: Policy Context

  • There is increasing concern at the low numbers of women involved in the STEM subjects of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. At an educational level girls are failing to take up certain science subjects at A-level, with the Institute of Physics showing that in the last 20 years only 20% of physics A-level students have been girls, despite about equal success between genders in GCSE physics and science. The EU has also recently launched a campaign, ‘Science: it’s a girl thing’ to encourage more school-age girls to take up scientific subjects.
  • Even in the sciences where women are numerically well-represented - such as biology, chemistry, and medicine – women are not achieving the highest levels in industry and academia.
  • A report from the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology in 2000 (No. 133) signalled central government’s interest in the area, but with the emphasis placed on changing the culture at school, universities and workplaces, the policy initiative has passed to a number of interest groups, as well as educational establishments, to encourage girls and women to consider careers in STEM subjects and combat both intentional and unintentional discrimination.
  • The current debate has focused on how to minimise ‘wastage’ of scientifically trained women, and to combat the short-termism of many research posts which deter women from these careers. There is also a suggestion that the structure of scientific funding in UK, which uses indicators such as publications and research output, disadvantages women having time out to raise a family; it is also often asserted that women lack the entrepreneurial skills or confidence to apply for and win funding. Combinations of these factors mean that the promising careers of many women in STEM are curtailed.

IV: SMART Objectives

  • To arrange one public event in conjunction with WISE by December 2013.
  • To arrange one workshop involving staff and students in at least two university departments participating in Athena SWAN by December 2013, highlighting the experience of women in their particular field.
  • To produce one opinion piece for the History and Policy website by June 2013 examining how current debates on the ‘problem’ of feminisation of medicine and veterinary medicine also has historical roots, which dovetail and reflect on the debates about women in STEM.
  • To produce at least one policy paper by June 2013 from an historian working on women in science, more closely focused on a particular discipline.

V: Audience

  • WISE – Women into Science and Engineering -an independent Community Interest Company which promotes women’s participation in the STEM subjects
  • Athena SWAN – an organisation supporting women’s STEM careers in academia
  • WES – Women’s Engineering Society
  • Research Councils UK – particularly those dealing with STEM subjects: EPSRC, STFC, MRC and BBSRC
  • University science departments – particularly physics, engineering, technology and mathematics.
  • School science departments and careers services

VI: Activities

  • Make the organisers of WISE and Athena SWAN aware of historians’ work on women in STEM
  • Have historians speak as part of the wider programme of events run by these organisations, highlighting the similarities and differences of experiences faced by women scientists in the past.
  • Utilise social media by responding to current news about women in science in the press, as well as interaction with interested parties, such as ScienceGrll, who has a substantial Twitter following.
  • Ask historians working in the area of women in STEM to write policy and opinion pieces
  • Secure evidence of impact

VII: Monitoring and evaluation

  • Take notes during the meetings with interested parties about how they respond to the historical context of the current debate, including what they think would be of interest to their audience.
  • To monitor the output of WISE and Athena Swan to see if more historical context is included on their website and publicity.
  • Ask participants to complete evaluation forms for the events held at universities


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H&P is based at the Institute of Historical Research, Senate House, University of London.

We are the only project in the UK providing access to an international network of more than 500 historians with a broad range of expertise. H&P offers a range of resources for historians, policy makers and journalists.

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