Does good scientific research depend on gender?

Science and Technology

Many people argue that we need more women in higher positions in the work place. Usually, they wave their hands and mutter something about gender equality and feminism, and others (depending on the crowd) will either nod somberly, or roll their eyes.

Hard evidence of this necessity is rare, but is slowly being made more widely known. “The evidence shows that science is not as excellent as it thinks”, says Elizabeth Pollitzer, the founder of Portia, a company which aims to target gender inequality in science. “We have plenty of research now to show what is important, what can be done, and what should be done.”

There is a startling shortage of research that has been carried out using women relative to men – from biological to engineering problems – and the gender bias in the data collection can have serious side effects on women’s welfare. A recent study by the American Journal of Public health showed that women are 47 per cent more likely to be injured in car accidents than men. The research gone into car safety was, impressively, all done with a crash dummy with a male build, and hence safety measures are only built to accommodate for men.

The incomplete research extends to various areas of science, including that done on vaccinations. Women are thought to respond somewhat more strongly than men, but too little research has been carried out in this field to confirm dosages. One reason for this problem could be the fact that, historically, very few women have been working in the sciences, especially high up in fields of research, and therefore it the idea to have gender balanced studies simply did not occur to people. “At each level, women get pushed out from the system”, Pollitzer said. “There is a small but systematic preference for men to get the grants”.

With a team of female scientists from Imperial College, Pollitzer established a company that gathers evidence to demonstrate the gender imbalance in science today. The company was named Portia, initially because of the feisty Shakespearean heroine with a strong sense of self-worth. Admittedly, at the end of the play, said heroine proceeds to commit suicide for the sake of her husband. That is possibly not the feminist message the group were attempting to convey. However, Portia labiata happens to be the name of a small, highly intelligent species of spider, which hunts by jumping on its prey at strategic opportunities.

What did Pollitzer find about women’s image in science? There are certain questions to ask yourself as a female researcher: Who has chosen your research topic? Is it broad, or are you stuck in a narrow field with little potential? Is there enough time to commit to research or do you have more teaching responsibilities? When applying for research grants, women also tend to ask for less money, and, depressingly, men tend to receive more appealing recommendations from former employers. “You will be described as a good team worker,” Pollitzer told us, “men will be described as a problem solver”. Still, she made an attempt at optimism, noting that “a science career takes forty years; don’t give up too early.”

In order to improve the quality of research carried out, it is crucial that more women move into the scientific field. Women and men have been proven to tackle science in different ways; when an experiment does not proceed as expected, in general women will aim to analyse it further, while men will attempt a different approach to confronting it. Neither is inherently better than the other; however in a team of scientists it is important that both methods are represented, and hence teams of mixed gender are often far more effective in producing research.

Pollitzer had three words of advice for any women looking to undertake a scientific career: “go into science”. Easier said than done, maybe, but the gender gap is slowly closing, we have it better today than it has ever been. Maybe that’s not incredibly comforting, but it’s a start. Hopefully, a start to improving both the quality and equality in the practice of science in the future.

Pollitzer was speaking in the annual symposium of the OxFEST. To find out more about OxFEST and their events, visit ox-fest.org or follow them on twitter @Ox_FEST or like them on Facebook.

PHOTO/Brenda Gratwicke