Nancy Rothwell

April 8, 2005

We must stop dwelling on the difficulties and look at the advantages of the X chromosome in academic success

Larry Summers has caused quite a stir. The president of Harvard University suggested that women underperform in science compared with their male counterparts because of genetic differences that influence their behaviour.

The first question is whether Summers' premise of underperformance is correct. In the UK at least, girls do as well or better at A levels in science (although fewer choose to take them) and do just as well in funding applications. But if Summers refers to positions in the higher echelons of science he is right - women do underperform.

I know of no evidence for Summers' "genetic theory", but understanding why women fail to reach the higher levels in science (and in many other disciplines) is a matter of concern.

A number of reports have identified hurdles, and family commitments top the list. In addition to the obvious difficulties of raising children, women seem more likely than men to follow a spouse to a new job and are more likely to act as carers of elderly relatives. Then there is the lack of female role models, the prevalence of old boys' networks and male chauvinism - and now, apparently (and somewhat incredibly), some senior women who want to prevent their junior counterparts from climbing the ladder.

I've been fortunate never to experience (or at least I've been naive enough not to spot) senior male or female colleagues who have been unsupportive.

But this is not to deny that they exist.

The situation in academia is no different from many other careers where men fill most of the seats at the top table. According to the tabloids, the rigorous gender bias and overt sexism in certain professions are quite scary, even if it's best not to generalise too much from tabloid news stories.

It seems, however, that in academia we talk, write and worry about it more than people in most walks of life.

Maybe this is a good thing. Recognition of a problem is an important step on the road to dealing with it, and there is no point in denying the gender imbalance.

But I wonder about the downside of all this discussion, debate and publicity. When I was a young female academic, no one seemed to talk much about gender balance, but if I were entering the field today, I think one thing that would dissuade me from a career in academia was being told how difficult it was going to be.

Statements that it is almost impossible to have a family and become a leading academic are unhelpful, particularly when there are many successful professional mums.

Rarely do we hear of the bonuses of the X chromosome in academic success.

And there are some significant benefits. Few of either gender are in favour of positive discrimination, and I'm adamantly against it, as it usually ends up insulting both sexes. But when there are 19 men and one woman of similar merit, it is likely the woman will be chosen - whether as a conference speaker, a member of a prestigious committee or for an award.

This is simply because everyone knows they are underrepresented, and excellent women are sought out for such positions.

Of the 30 speakers at a meeting, most people will remember you as one of the few women. You will almost certainly receive more invitations (not necessarily a good thing unless you are accustomed to saying no) and you can be elevated to the status of "one of the few who have made it".

Many senior committees spend hours trying to identify excellent female candidates. The downside is that, as one woman among many men, they may remember you but you can't for the life of you recall who most of them are.

We cannot deny that too few women make it to the top in academia. But all this talk of the problems, hurdles and difficulties, let alone genetic differences, is hardly likely to encourage women to succeed. It is about time we were open and at least acknowledged that there are some advantages.

In talks to schoolchildren, I tell them that I nearly chose a career in art. They ask me why I didn't.

There are many reasons, not least that I probably wasn't good enough. But as an 18-year-old, the idea of being in a profession in which men outnumbered women held some appeal, and thus I chose science (maybe engineering would have been even better).

Harvard has very few women in senior positions in sciences and I doubt that this will improve after Dr Summers' lecture.

The more we can do to encourage and entice women into science, the more the profession will thrive.

Nancy Rothwell is MRC research professor in the faculty of life sciences at Manchester University.

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