Women and science

Men are from Mars: STEM stands for science, technology, engineering and maths.

As of 2019, the Nobel Prize for Physics has been awarded to 206 men — and three women. Does this mean that men are better at science? The truth is much more complicated.

  • Does anyone still think women are worse at science than men?

    Apparently, so. In October 2018, Professor Alessandro Strumia was suspended by the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) for saying that women are less suited to being physicists than men. During a seminar on gender and physics in Geneva, Strumia stated, “Physics was invented and built by men,” and claimed that gender differences in interests and IQ explain why men make up more than 70% of the world’s scientists.

    CERN quickly launched an investigation into Strumia, and his speech was roundly condemned by the physics community.

    The row erupted just a day before Dr Donna Strickland became the first woman, in 55 years, to win the Nobel Prize in Physics.

  • How many women go into science?

    In 2017, women made up just 23% of the UK’s science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) workforce, which includes engineers, IT technicians and more.

    The picture begins more equally. At GCSE, girls make up 48% of STEM entrants, but this drops to 37% at A Level, and 24% in higher education.

    Nevertheless, exam results show no evidence that boys are naturally better than girls at science. Female GCSE STEM students outperform males by 4% and, at A Level, their results are roughly equal.

  • Are male brains wired for science?

    The old theory goes that levels of testosterone in men change the structure of the brain, with the result that men have better mathematical skills and women have better social and language skills.

    Indeed, a major study in 2007 found that men perform better than women at mental tasks related to space and objects, which may support that theory. However, the researchers noted that “experience alters brain structures” and the differences could be due to social conditioning.

    In 2015, the first attempt to search for sex differences using brain scans found that less than 8% of people have a brain with all the features associated with their sex. The vast majority lie somewhere in the middle.

  • What social factors are at play?

    A large study in 2018 revealed that while men are no more skilled at science, they are far more confident in their abilities, which leads to greater class participation and exam success. The experts suggest this is down to gender stereotypes encouraging young women to see maths and science as “boys’ subjects”, creating a vicious circle of low confidence.

  • Is the science community sexist?

    While it is uncommon for a scientist to be as outspoken as Strumia, there is growing evidence that sexist behaviour — from subtle micro-aggressions to serious harassment — is common in scientific fields.

    In June 2018, a report from the US National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine found that sexism is “pervasive” across university science departments, driving talented women out of research and harming the careers of others. Most commonly, women are worn down by frequent subtle sexist comments from male colleagues and mentors.

    “The put-downs as opposed to the come-ons,” explains scientist Paula Johnson.

    In 2017, the issue of sexism in Silicon Valley gained international attention after a female employee of taxi app Uber detailed her experiences of harassment at the company.

  • How can we get more women into science and maths?

    In recent years, the Government, universities and STEM industries have stepped up their efforts to improve female representation in the sciences through apprenticeships, scholarships and more.

    Groups like the WISE campaign and Women in STEM seek to provide young women with mentors in the industry, and encourage them to pursue science throughout their school careers. However, there is still a long way to go.

You Decide

  1. Are men naturally better at science than women?


  1. Watch the video about female science heroes in Become An Expert. Choose one of the women, or another female scientist you know of, and research their life. Design a poster, including a picture of them; a timeline of their life; and a list of their achievements, with a few sentences about their impact on the world today.

Word Watch

European Organization for Nuclear Research
The world’s largest particle physics lab. It is best known for creating the Large Hadron Collider, which throws particles together at immense speeds to help physicists see how our universe formed.
Dr Donna Strickland
Strickland was awarded the prize jointly with Arthur Ashkin and Gérard Mourou for their work creating powerful lasers which can be used for laser eye surgery.
Social conditioning
When an individual is exposed to society’s expectations of them throughout their life, which in turn influences their behaviour and personality. A person’s family, friends, schooling and the media can all have an impact.
Small behaviours, such as jokes or comments, that subtly discriminate against oppressed groups.
Silicon Valley
An area in northern California where most of the world’s largest tech companies are based, including Google and Facebook.
Susan Fowler’s post encouraged women at other tech companies to speak up about the problem. The scandal led to the introduction of a new anti-sexual harassment law in California.

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