Are we serious about addressing gender imbalance in accessing male dominated professions such as science?

earth-2 Science-and-Technology-Some-advantages-and-disadvantagesSo if we want to address gender imbalance in science and other professions in society, what supporting infrastructure is being laid?

Situations arise at every turn in our lives which unravel the mind to question or look at things in a different light.

Last week at work brought us new enthusiastic young people whose dream of stepping in to a world of academic science gave them hope to fulfill personal ambitions and dreams.  All these young persons from different walks of life, are female and in their last years in secondary education.  Their goal at this stage is to prepare for their Nuffield education award by undertaking work experience during their summer break from school.

The application process for these sponsorship or awards can be quite arduous on its own.  The next challenge is in obtaining work placements within academic institutions. This can vary and can often be disappointingly frustrating for the students and their would-be host supervisors. images (1)

indexMost academicians are quite willing and happy to take on school age budding scientific minds.  It is the conditions and requirements imposed by institutions in order to avoid any legal issues which may arise, for example such as inappropriate adult versus minor interaction, that prevent would-be supervisors from undertaking this.  The stipulations are often quite stringent: female supervisor to supervise female student(s), any meetings with female students where a male supervisor is leading, to be held in an open office or area. In an academic/laboratory setting, this is simply not as often feasible.  After all, students often are quite keen to work within the laboratories to put to experiment  ideas as opposed to soaking in theories from textbooks or journals.

Now I’m not being funny but anyone who has worked with “serious”/genuine science professors/academicians will back me up on the fact that these guys, (and mostly they are males), are for the greater time, only interested in what goes on in their Petri-dishes.  The highlight of their conversation peaks when discussing discoveries or results of what has been crossed with what and how long it may have been spun in the centrifuge etc…

photo_co_lab_lgI have been working on the academic side as their ‘office person’ for years – I still don’t know what the pretty images are in their submitted academic papers or what they mean by gene expression let alone hybridisation of mRNA!   They give new meaning to the term computer-widow.

Now we forget; a student that seeks work placement/experience at this late stage in their academic pursuits does so out of their keen volition: to cement their academic goals.  They actually want to be there to explore, and learn, as opposed to law requirement that they be.  It is not the same as attending school out of duty/fear, such that you turn up to school and take it out on the teachers or establishment in general, behaving like an absolute jerk at any opportune moment.

The other issue we forget is that not all females actually enjoy working with fellow females as their seniors.  Not everyone is from a culture where segregation of genders is the norm nor is it the case that all male species are just waiting to jump on any available female species they set eyes on. Believe it or not, some men are quite able to control themselves and are respectful to females.  This idea that all men are to be seen as sexual predators is proving to be quite damaging in many areas of society and commonsense really needs to come back to earth.

Further irony to these work-placements in scientific institutions that have such stringent criteria is that of claiming to address the gender imbalance in society in order to encourage females to pursue science or other currently male-dominated professions.  How in the hell is this going to be facilitated if the persons within these professions who are mostly male are not facilitated with supporting personnel to oversee supervision?   Are we to live in a future where segregation is the only mode of interaction for either gender?

Surely these stringent conditions albeit understandable but borne out of fear for legal issues, are more harmful to the ideology of voiced encouragement to address gender imbalance in professions such as science et al.

From experience dealing with young persons, I often find that seeking their take is far more conducive and productive to what we adults assume is correct.  Has anyone asked would-be-students, their take in all these measures  in order to obtain a workable solution that does not leave many young female budding scientists, loose out?

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