Sex and science
Of 441 Nobel prizes only 11 have gone to women. The only two women prize-winners in physics were Marie Curie and Maria Goeppert-Mayer. The American Barbara McClintock, who made the vital discovery that chromosomes shape identity, had to wait till she was 82 before receiving the Nobel prize. Few people remember the importance of the German Emmy Noether to modern algebra, or of Sonia Kovalevskaia, the first woman university professor of mathematics (at Stockholm University). Europe’s resistance (bar the Nordic countries) to women in politics may seem astonishing, as is their near absence in certain fields (science, engineering and new technology) . It has always been fashionable for the media to discuss how the different hemispheres of the brain work. But they have produced no conclusive evidence. So what keeps women away from the "hard" sciences? Why do they not opt for these key fields when they leave school?
by Ingrid Carlander
"Is science a question of sex? This is a vital question if we want to find out about science, about the balance of forces in our society", maintains Dhavernas-Lévy, philosopher at the Centre national de la recherche scientifique (CNRS) in Paris. In his study of the cultural aspects of science (1), Pierre Thuillier notes that "the clichés about men being better at science have been widely disseminated by university libraries, text books and the popular press".
In France, 24% of physicists and 20% of mathematicians are women. And very few women in this select band hold positions of responsibility. There are more women physicists in Italy, but hardly any in top jobs. In Germany the situation is even worse. And in the United States, where doctors and lawyers have more power than scientists, there are only 5% of women scientists.
This shortage of women in science is a real social problem that goes far beyond questions of principle. In fact it is a major social and economic issue, in a world where technological change is advancing apace. Too many people have no say in the major decisions on the objectives of the future. Women first and foremost.
In France, this year opened with a disturbing finding. Two organisations, Demain la parité (Equality Tomorrow) and Les femmes diplômées des universités (Women Graduates) published a warning report (2). They pointed out that the exclusion of women from such a vital professional field as science risked creating a total imbalance in the exercise of citizenship and power in our country.
The cliché about "innate differences" between the sexes still goes down well with the general public (some women even use this argument as a pretext) and in certain popular scientific journals. "Yet there is no proof of any innate differences between the male and female brain", according to Catherine Vidal, neuro-biologist and head of laboratory at the Institut Pasteur. "Some tests show up differences, for instance that boys are better at solving spatial problems, but these differences could be acquired. Perhaps they are acquired through outdoor games. Then there is the question of hormones: but it has never been proved that hormones make girls nicer and boys naughtier." And the fairly respectable quota of women scientists working in the CNRS (32%) contradicts the argument that men are better at scientific research than women.