A perfect mix: women who excel at science

The president of Harvard caused a storm when he questioned the ability of female scientists. But there are numerous examples which prove that his hypothesis is wrong, says Michael McCarthy
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Women and science don't mix? Rachel Carson would have something to say about that. So would Rosalind Franklin. The American marine biologist who started the modern environmental movement, and the British X-ray crystallographer who perceived the true nature of DNA before anyone else, would no doubt have choice words to describe the opinion of Lawrence H Summers, president of Harvard University, that something in women's genes keeps them from scaling the scientific peaks. Both women were behind major 20th-century scientific revolutions.

Women and science don't mix? Rachel Carson would have something to say about that. So would Rosalind Franklin. The American marine biologist who started the modern environmental movement, and the British X-ray crystallographer who perceived the true nature of DNA before anyone else, would no doubt have choice words to describe the opinion of Lawrence H Summers, president of Harvard University, that something in women's genes keeps them from scaling the scientific peaks. Both women were behind major 20th-century scientific revolutions.

When Rachel Carson published her book Silent Spring in 1962, her devastating indictment of how modern agricultural pesticides had wiped out songbirds across much of America, she changed the way in which we looked at the natural world.

And when Rosalind Franklin first perceived the double-helix structure of the DNA molecule, 10 years earlier - a discovery subsequently elucidated by Francis Crick and James Watson, who picked up the worldwide fame and the Nobel Prize - she began a process that changed the way we look at life itself.

They were just two examples being offered yesterday as part of a chorus of contradiction of Dr Summers, an economist who was US Treasury Secretary in the latter part of the Clinton administration.

His contention that boys outperform girls in science and maths because of genetic differences - he backed up his argument by saying his daughter treated two toy trucks as dolls, calling them mummy truck and daddy truck - is just not supported by the evidence, according to Britain's august scientific academy, the Royal Society.

Current A-level figures show that more girls are taking chemistry and biology than boys, according to the Royal Society spokesman Tim Watson. And while fewer girls take maths and physics at A-level, they do at least as well as boys, if not better. "It's a nonsense to say girls are incapable of doing these subjects," he said.

But he conceded that women were under-represented in the sciences at the top, professorial levels. Yet here, he said, it was social attitudes, not inherent brainpower, that was behind the difference.

"At least at the professor level there is an under-representation," he said. "Something like 9 to 10 per cent of professors in the sciences across the board are women. But then if we look at other academic subjects, it's similar. The fact that women are not being retained at senior levels is a general trend in the workplace. It's the culture of the workplace - the lack of career flexibility. If women want to take a career break to have children, there are barriers to them getting back in. But this is not just a problem with science - there's no difference to most other areas."

It is a source of some embarrassment to the Royal Society that while the most sought-after scientific distinction in Britain is one of its own fellowships, the proportion of fellows who are women is very low indeed. Of the 1,259 scientists who are entitled to add the cherished letters FRS after their names, only 58 - or 4.6 per cent - are women. (And although the society was founded in 1660, the first female fellows, Kathleen Lonsdale and Marjory Stephenson, were only elected in 1945.)

But the society would not remotely agree that this is an indicator of genetic distinction. Openly accepting that the figure is "disappointingly low", it says it "reflects the under-representation of women at senior levels of science in higher education and industry". The Royal Society communications manager, Bob Ward, says this is partly because the average age of fellows on election is about 55. Their election is usually on the basis of work undertaken 15 or 20 years previously, since it can take that long to build up a sufficient body of scientific work to justify election and to know whether the scientific work is indeed seminal. So current elections reflect the position in science at post-doctoral level in the 1970s, and at professorial level now, where women are under-represented. Mr Ward added: "The proportion of women within the fellowship is increasing slowly." For example, of the 254 fellows who had been elected in the past six years, 27, or 11 per cent, were women.

Besides Carson and Franklin, plenty of other examples spring to mind of female scientific brain power, from Marie Curie (1867-1934), who discovered radium, created the field of nuclear chemistry and won two Nobel Prizes, to the astronomer Margaret Burbridge, who is now 85.

Professor Burbridge was director of the Greenwich Royal Observatory at Herstmonceux from 1971 to 1973, but was not allowed to use the prestigious title of Astronomer Royal which had always previously accompanied the directorship.

She left to pursue her career in the United States, where she became one of the lead researchers on the Hubble space telescope, investigating the most distant objects in the universe - and thus proving her genetic suitability for science at the highest level beyond any doubt.

Successful female scientists respond

Baroness Susan Greenfield. Director of the Royal Institution of Great Britain

One is tempted to laugh at comments like these because they are so obviously ludicrous. But it sets back all the work we are doing to encourage women into the sciences, especially because they have been made by someone who is in a position of authority.

What he is saying is not only blatantly wrong but completely unsubstantiated. To say his point is proved because his daughter renamed her lorries "mummy and daddy" is hardly rigorous science. She could be seeing the world in an entirely new way, doing something very creative, observing a new relationship between things.

Men and women do have different learning skills, girls learn to speak earlier while boys have better constructive skills, but there is no single skill that makes someone a good scientist. There is a whole range. Being bloody-minded, for example and not giving up. The idea that science skills are biologically determined is crass and simplistic.

Evidence that sexism exists in science is available not just anecdotally but has been properly gathered. A paper by Wenneras and Wold on nepotism and sexism in Swedish science papers was published in Nature in 1997 and made the case well.

From my experience, a long time ago now, I remember my name had been put forward for a prize in the US. When I didn't get it, the person who broke the news said it was no surprise: "Not only are you not American, but you're a woman." And he was trying to comfort me.

There is a perception among schoolgirls that splitting the atom is for boys, while girls are good at "people skills". When I was interviewing at Oxford and asking girls why they wanted to do medicine, they always said they wanted to work with people, while the boys said they wanted to do the science. The schools were encouraging the girls to say this. All science is about people and if we are to get that across we could get more women into it.

Professor Nancy Rothwell. Manchester University vice-president for research and fellow to the Royal Society

Mr Summers has made the assumption that men outperform women at science. This depends on how he is defining performance. If he's talking about the number of men who are in senior roles in the field, he's probably right. But there are many reasons for this, such as social influences and cultural differences. Some women have grown up as carers in the family or followed their husband's career path. But this is changing and varies greatly between disciplines.

If he's talking about the ability of women in science, I take objection. Several funding bodies have looked at this issue and found that the intellectual success rate between men and women is practically identical. While there are fewer women in science, when put on a similar playing field they do equally as well.

No one can dispute that genetic differences influence behaviour. But to assert a genetic link between your sex and ability to do science is a tenuous intellectual leap that is totally unfounded.

What evidence is Mr Summers using? I'm aware of no research that demonstrates a difference between men and women.

If sexism exists in science I haven't noticed it. As I progressed through my career, all my mentors were male. Personally, it was not an issue to me. Besides, being in the minority you can get more recognition than male counterparts.

Many friends have taken career breaks or shared childcare responsibilities with their partners. Universities are taking the issue of child care very seriously and there is more awareness now. It's clear old-fashioned stereotypical views have got better.

You only need to look at certain lead figures in science to see that women can be successful in both their personal and professional life. Julia Goodfellow, [chief executive of the biotechnology research council], for example, has had a very successful career while raising two children.

Professor Frances Ashcroft. Professor of physiology at the University of Oxford and fellow of Trinity College, Oxford

My first reaction was to laugh, as I thought his comments were absurd. I still wonder if this is just a PR stunt to get his name and that of Harvard in the papers. But if he does believe what he said, then he is simply revealing his own stupidity. This is an old-fashioned attitude that is dying out. Of course there are differences between sexes - but not in intellectual capacity or scientific aptitude.

Although Dr Summer's comments did not distress me, they may come as a surprise to many of the excellent women scientists on his staff - who are internationally respected, and successfully balance science with family life.

There is no reason to believe that a woman's professional capabilities need be compromised by her personal obligations.

The British female Nobel laureate, Dorothy Hodgkin, was a shining example to the contrary. She was a X-ray crystallographer in the early days, who had several children while achieving excellence in a very tough discipline.

His views on child care are also out of date. It's true that, in my youth, women took primary responsibility, but today it's more of a partnership. Times have changed.

I think of myself as a scientist, not as a female scientist. Gender really doesn't come into it. In over twenty years, I have never been discriminated against because I am a woman; nor has my ability to get grants, to get published, or to get my ideas accepted, been influenced by my sex.

It's true that women are under-represented at the upper levels. Only 5 per cent of the Fellows of the Royal Society are women and less than 10 per cent of university professors. To some extent this is down topast discrimination and social mores, because distinction and achievement is generally only recognised after many years of work.

As more young women enter science, so we will see them gradually achieving the top jobs.

Professor Judith Howard. Professor of structural chemistry at Durham University

Larry Summers has not been looking around him - why he's come out and said this now I have no idea. It's complete rubbish. The ability to learn to succeed and thrive in science is not restricted to men. Anyone who is starting on a career path has certain influences and pressures and these will change throughout our careers. We just deal with them and get on with it.

People like Larry Summers will always be prejudiced and label women in science as "minorities". Opportunities and people's perceptions have changed. One hopes are that by and large there is more of an open-minded attitude among men and women than there was back in his day. One cannot get away from the biological differences men and women when it comes to interpretation. Men and women listening to newscasts or football results will have a different attitude or perception. But this is nothing to do with the ability to learn and be successful and innovative in our subject.

People ask me if men and women "do" science differently. To this extent, Larry Summers' comments don't really surprise me.

Times have changed. Growing up, I didn't ever experience prejudice that stopped me doing anything I wanted. I'm also fortunate that my discipline has had some very influential female figures.

In science you will always find people who don't like you. But it is a question of getting on with it - not getting paranoid. There have been cases in my career where I've had my grants rejected, papers dismissed and theories questioned. But you can't get caught up in what people think of you or you'll get nowhere.

Though Mr Summers has clearly stirred controversy by these comments, I hope women won't be deterred. It's not about licking our wounds. It's about getting on with it.

Interviews by Kunal Dutta and Jonathan Brown