Women love science – what a surprise!

Why did the revelation a woman runs a science website shock people?

The shock, horror and plain sexist abuse that greeted the revelation that the talent and brains behind one of the world's most popular science websites were those of a woman prompted Elise Andrew to wonder whether she had suddenly travelled back to the Dark Ages. The biology graduate and creator of the "I fucking love science" site was "astonished" at the onslaught of comments from men amazed that she was female. Remarks ranged from "This is a babe?" to "I never expected you to be a girl!" "Are there kitchens in space?" was among the less savoury postings.

Ms Andrew was incredulous. "Every comment on that thread is about how shocking it is that I'm a woman! Is this really 2013?" She believes the responses typify why female scientists never put themselves forward as role models for fear of receiving a torrent of sexist abuse. "The whole thing was ridiculous, just insane," she told The Independent on Sunday. "I got a lot of sexual comments which I don't think I would have received if I were a man. Lots of comments were just about my appearance."

Her site has 4.4 million fans and counting – eight times more than Richard Dawkins's Foundation for Reason and Science page. The evolutionary biologist added his voice to Ms Andrew's growing band of supporters yesterday, tweeting: "Elise Andrew is a science star."

The site has just celebrated its first birthday, having been created when Ms Andrew, 23, from Long Melford in Suffolk, was a few weeks away from graduating at the University of Sheffield. Speaking from Canada, where she now works for a social media group, she urged more women to stand up to the sexists.

"When an attractive man speaks about his achievements, the comments are about those achievements, not his looks. We need to see more women speaking up for science in the media because at the moment when you think of science, you think of a man, and that has a huge influence on young girls growing up. There is still a long way to go to change attitudes."

Her views were supported yesterday by other female scientists. Baroness Susan Greenfield, the first female director of the Royal Institution, said that more than a decade after her landmark report on gender equality, science remains an institutionally sexist arena. Set Fair: A report on Women in Science, Engineering and Technology proposed a target of women making up 20 per cent of science, engineering and technology professors by 2007. Today female professors account for 5.5 per cent in physics, 6 per cent in chemistry, 18 per cent in biological sciences, 6 per cent in maths and just 2 per cent in engineering.

The Institute of Physics said the problem also exists at other levels, with women accounting for just 19 per cent of physics researchers and 15 per cent of lecturers. Lady Greenfield believes the glass ceiling for senior posts, unpopularity of science among schoolgirls and lack of childcare are still inhibiting progress.

"Science remains institutionally sexist," she said. "The money provided from Government as a result of the Set Fair report was a drop in the ocean and changed nothing."

The leaky pipeline of women dropping out of the industry is reflected in the fact that 73 per cent of female science, technology, engineering and maths (Stem) graduates are not in Stem employment, compared with 52 per cent of men. Lady Greenfield, a professor of pharmacology at the University of Oxford, called for the establishment of more schemes like the Daphne Jackson Trust, which helps scientists returning after a career break and said positive discrimination would be "a pyrrhic victory, as you want the best person for the job".

Dame Athene Donald, professor of physics at the University of Cambridge, said a lot of the targets in the Set Fair report were "challenging" and that a bigger concern is the number of women who perceive a career in science as being "too difficult".

"The drop-out rate for women varies between the scientific disciplines," she added. "I don't think 'sexism' is the right word to describe what happens; there's much less of that now. It's just the presumption that exists at every level of society."

Last year's skills survey by the Institution of Engineering and Technology showed that just 6 per cent of the engineering workforce were female, a figure that has not increased since 2008. The proportion of women working as technicians is just 4 per cent, down from 5 per cent at the start of the recession.

The science minister, David Willetts, was challenged on diversity in science at a Westminster event hosted by the Society of Biology earlier this month. A spokeswoman for the society said gender disparity "is perhaps more surprising in the biosciences than in other scientific disciplines given the large proportion of females at undergraduate and postgraduate level."

The BBC recently launched an "expert women database" as it attempts to diversify its contacts. Jassel Majevadia, a physics research postgraduate at Imperial College London, made the shortlist of 30 from 2,000 applicants. She said: "Five-year-old girls are forming opinions of scientists as grey-haired men, so it has to be girls of that age who are targeted.

"By the time we get to university it's too late. There are not enough female mentors or role models around."

Ms Andrew added: "When I was at university I could think of only one female scientist in the media: Alice Roberts.

"She is the only one popularising science. All the rest are men, and that has to change."

Cover story: nature's woman

Nature, the respected science journal, has been heavily criticised for using a female model on the cover of its "women in science" special edition earlier this month.

"Science remains institutionally sexist," it said, above an image of an attractive brunette, with surgical gloves and a lab jacket. "Despite some progress, women scientists are still paid less, promoted less, win fewer grants and are more likely to leave research than similarly qualified men."

When The IoS asked the photographer Viktor Koen who the "scientist" was, he said: "Our girl is a mix of stock with original photography and not a real person."

Nature Publishing Group's Alice Henchley said the journal chose a model rather than an individual scientist because "Nature wanted something that represented all women scientists as dynamic 'women at work'. So the figure is representational by design. Singling out one particular person would have distorted the message; we are looking to drive systematic change. Hence the cover was designed to represent all women rather than picking one."

Baroness Susan Greenfield said she was disappointed by the choice.

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