Images of women in science

An idle Google image search of ‘women in science’ throws up some interesting results. Cue reams of pictures of girls in labcoats brandishing pipettes… all very nice and politically correct but, why is it only young women who’re portrayed as doing science?

women3women4women1In the majority of these images, women are featured in trainee-type or educative settings; clustered around a microscope learning the ropes or listening with rapt attention to a (probably male, let’s face it) lecturer. Are women only involved in science as students or trainees?  The images we use certainly portray this; they’re not just rife in a Google Images search but are found all over well-meaning sources.

Unfortunately this is an image which is also backed up by statistics. In the biosciences, the undergraduate, PhD and postdoc communities present an approximately 50:50 gender split. However, as soon as more senior roles are considered, this balance erodes until we are left with only 15% female bioscience professors in the UK.(1)

While it’s definitely a great thing that the bioscience student population reflects the gender balance – something which is not seen with other scientific disciplines – it remains a concern that this does not pervade right to the top of the career ladder. The possible reasons for this are many and varied.(2)

In order to change this, we need to alter the perception that women in science are generally young and involved as learners rather than as leaders. Changing the images we use is obviously only a small part of the process required to change this but it’s a step. Anything that could have an influence on the perception of women in science, especially that of young women and men considering a career in science, can only be a good thing.

So let’s champion (and create!) images of women in senior roles and of senior ages.  When selecting images to accompany articles, marketing materials or reports think about the age and role of the female scientists portrayed. It’s a small change, but one that could get us a little closer to a more gender balanced community.

(1) 2011/2012 HESA data
(2) For an analysis, see the Society of Biology’s response to the House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee’s inquiry into women in academic STEM careers

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