... and press still puts their looks before achievements

Half the profiles of female scientists make mention of appearance, writes Zoe Corbyn

March 13, 2008

"The 55-year-old academic's mane of blonde hair, her short, navy voluminous skirt ... teamed with a Vivienne Westwood jacket and knee-length boots sets a high benchmark," reads a newspaper profile of one female scientist.

"She is impressive, an immaculately groomed woman of 70 who could easily pass for 15 years younger," reads another. A third describes its subject as a "petite, feisty communicator".

Welcome to life in the media eye as a female scientist, according to research released this week at the annual conference of the UK Resource Centre for Women in Science, Engineering and Technology (UKRC). For those "lucky enough" to be picked out, appearance counts more than brains, and high heels are perceived as adding to the interest.

"Journalists write as if there is a fundamental oxymoron between being a scientist and a woman," said the study's author, Jenny Kitzinger, a professor at the Cardiff School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies. "They need to reflect on their role in perpetuating sexism."

Her study concludes that the media do a disservice to women - the failure to take them seriously, the trivialising of their work and the perpetuation of sexist stereotypes could harm their career progress.

Professor Kitzinger looked at how the press represented male and female scientists by analysing more than 1,500 articles from a range of newspapers in the first six months of 2006. She found that there was an imbalance in the use of expert scientific sources - journalists quoted five men for every one woman - and that five male scientists were profiled for every one woman.

Professor Kitzinger was particularly startled, however, by the extent to which female scientists' appearance became an issue. Of 51 profiles of female and male scientists published during the period, half those describing female scientists mentioned clothing, physique or hairstyle. Appearance was noted in only a fifth of the profiles of male scientists and, when it was, it tended to be in weightier tones. "His full white beard is worn more in homage to Charles Darwin than the Almighty," one journalist wrote.

"The lack of prominence of female experts in science, engineering and technology (when quoted in news reports) and the sexist way in which some female scientists are profiled may be discouraging for girls and women seeking to develop careers in science, engineering and technology," the study concludes.

The sentiments were echoed by Annette Williams, the director of the UKRC. "There is a distinct lack of positive role models for women scientists and engineers in the media. It is the responsibility of the media as a vehicle for social change to give women an equal voice and paint a positive picture of the opportunities available to them in the sector ... whether that is by showing women (in SET) in popular TV programmes or by referring to more female scientists for expert comment on news stories."

Yet if, as the UKRC's statistics show, only 18.5 per cent of people working in SET are female, is the media not merely mirroring the status quo? No, said Ms Williams, who thinks the media also need to ensure that positive representations are promoted. "The media, when sourcing comments, go to the most well-known scientists, who are often men," she said. "Women and their achievements are often overlooked."

The way forward was to work in partnership, she said. "It is about trying to raise the visibility of women who are in a position to comment, who are experts in their field, but also raising the confidence of those experts who would like to comment."



"If I were going to give female scientists any advice on working in the sector, it would be to make sure they don't start out with the premise that just because they are female it will be difficult."

So says Dame Nancy Rothwell, a leading neuroscientist and deputy vice-chancellor of the University of Manchester - and one of six women who have just been named this year's Women of Outstanding Achievement by the UK Resource Centre for Women in Science, Engineering and Technology. UKRC has been building a collection of photographic portraits of its inspirational award winners over the past three years.

Professor Rothwell's achievements include the discovery of a protein believed to cause damage to the brain after a stroke.

She was elected a fellow of the Royal Society in 2004 and presented with a DBE in 2005.

"There are plenty of people who will support you no matter what your gender, so you shouldn't be put off by the negativity around women in science," Professor Rothwell said. "I think the science, engineering and technology industry has recognised that it is simply no longer acceptable to have a culture that doesn't recognise the importance of diversity."

Anne Glover, who has been seconded from her role as professor of medical sciences at the University of Aberdeen to the post of Chief Scientific Adviser for Scotland, has also been recognised as a role model.

The focus of her research, which she continues one day a week, is on how organisms respond to stress.

She said women's expectations had changed dramatically in the years she has worked in the area. "I regularly see more and more women in senior positions, providing the younger generation with positive role models."

But she added: "Although I haven't seen many explicit barriers to women working in science, engineering and technology on a day-to-day basis, it can often be the hidden barriers that are harder to overcome. When all the men in a department go for lunch together and then discuss forthcoming opportunities or research posts - that can be hard to combat."

She says female employees should be encouraged to join committees and to get involved in strategic planning.

"Mentoring can also be a great help, I have had amazing mentors, both men and women, throughout my career, and (mentoring) schemes need to be highlighted to women throughout the industry."

Uta Frith, professor at the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience at University College London, is another of the women celebrated this week. Her research has contributed to the understanding of autism and dyslexia.

"I would definitely recommend women to enter science if they are excited about research, even if they have not done science at school," said Professor Frith, who moved into science after becoming intrigued by how the brain works.

"Women should not be afraid to put themselves forward to be considered for the wide opportunities available to them. Women in science should also bear in mind that you don't need to be aggressive to get to the top."

The other winners were:

Kay Davies, a professor at the University of Oxford, specialises in genetics and has done extensive research into Duchenne muscular dystrophy, a common genetic muscular disease.

Wendy Sadler, founder of the science communication company Science Made Simple, which aims to inspire new scientists and engineers through a series of talks given in schools.

Joanna Kennedy, a civil engineer who oversees multimillion-pound projects for the consulting engineers Ove Arup.


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