Challenging Implicit Gender Bias in Science: Positive Representations of Female Scientists in Fiction

Article excerpt

Abstract: Despite decades of research and affirmative action, women continue to be under-represented in the sciences. Cultural assumptions and stereotypes are a key factor impacting women's entry into and retention in the sciences, indicating the need for improved role models for girls in science education. This paper reviews the critical research on Media representations of female scientists, and argues that more positive role models are found in fiction. This research examines the kind of cultural work such representations might perform, analysing a diverse sample of texts from 1905 to the present. These images of female scientists provide numerous examples of positive, non-traditional role models, examples of egalitarian scientific cultures, and critiques of contemporary science. Informed by this analysis, the article considers how these representations might be used to challenge stereotypical assumptions concerning women's role in the sciences.

Key-words: Gender, science education, female scientists, representation, role models

For more than three decades, researchers and scientists have debated the "women in science" issue. Despite improvements in their position, the status of women in the sciences continues to provoke concern, as women remain underrepresented in most areas of science, have low rates of retention and are less likely to reach the higher echelons of research and academic positions.

I. Representations of women in science

As the 2006 report from the U.S. National Academy of Sciences noted, 'Neither our academic institutions nor our nation can afford such underuse of precious human capital in science and engineering' (NAS, 2006, 1).While these trends are mirrored in most of Western Europe (and other countries such as Australia), The Unesco Science Report 2010 shows that despite their pre-eminence in terms of research output and expenditure, the U.S. and Western Europe are outperformed by other countries in terms of gender equity (Schneegans, 2010). Women form close to 50% of science researchers in a number of countries in Latin America, Eastern Europe and Southern Asia.1 In contrast, while US women's share of undergraduate degrees has soared in some areas, across most of the sciences women are less likely to continue on to advanced degrees or scientific careers. A 2011 National Science Foundation report shows that while women in the US now account for well over half of undergraduate degrees in areas such as biological sciences (59.8%) and medical science (84.5), they remain a minority in areas such as Engineering (18.5%) and Computer sciences (17.7% - down from 28% in 2000). Further, while women's share of graduate studies has improved in the last few years, these figures don't flow onto senior academic and career positions.2 Women's share of S&E occupations is roughly half that of their participation in the general workforce, with a much lower percentage of jobs in professions such as Physical scientists (32%), Math/computer scientists (25%), and Engineers (11%) (NSF, 2011). So why do US women continue to fall foul of the "leaky pipeline"?

The example of countries which have achieved gender parity suggest that it is not lack of interest that keeps women out of science, but rather a complex mix of social, cultural, economic and political factors. The extensive body of research into the women in science question has documented numerous factors which impact on women's ability and desire to follow a career in science (Eisenhart & Finkel, 1998; Lederman & Bartsch, 2001; Rosser, 2004; NAS, 2006). A central concern are the factors influencing girls' early education choices, and how these are shaped by gender schemas, cultural stereotypes, and peer influence (NSF, 2003; Stake & Nickens, 2005; Dweck, 2007; Halpern, 2007; Hines, 2007). The 2006 NAS report, Beyond Bias and Barriers confirms that the existence of 'implicit biases' continues to play a central role in women's under-representation in Science and Engineering (NAS, 2006, 3). …