How centuries of sexism excluded women from science — and how to redress the balance

How centuries of sexism excluded women from science — and how to redress the balance

Athene Donald offers practical ways to encourage women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.Credit: Micheline Pelletier/Abaca Press/Alamy

Not Just for the Boys: Why We Need More Women in Science Athene Donald Oxford Univ. Press (2023)

Despite growing numbers of women participating in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), barriers to entry and retention remain prevalent. Numerous reports outline the problem. Some 35% of the US STEM workforce are women, with fewer in the European Union (17%), Japan (16%) and India (14%). But harassment and discrimination remain common. Just over one-fifth of women in STEM are considering leaving their field, whereas two-thirds of those who have left wish they could return. However, such numbers don’t explain how the situation arose or how to repair it. British physicist Athene Donald offers answers in her latest book.

Not Just for the Boys is an enjoyable and useful primer on the challenges faced by women in STEM. Donald, an experimental physicist at the University of Cambridge, UK, and a leading authority on gender-equity issues, draws evidence from history, neuroscience and social science to explain why gender bias is rife in STEM. With close attention to the societal factors that affect education and career choices, she successfully argues that the scientific workforce needs more women.

The book’s main point is that “science is done best when it is approached from as many different angles as possible”. Maximizing the diversity of scientists’ backgrounds is crucial in avoiding groupthink and the domination of ideas from one group, such as white men. Gender is the main focus, and readers looking for a wider exploration of diversity will be disappointed. The book includes discussions on intersectionality and descriptions of Asian American, Black and trans experiences, but these are buried deep in its chapters. Most of the examples and experiences presented are from the perspective of a European academic.

Donald argues that putting women off careers in STEM means shutting out a large fraction of the scientific talent needed to solve the world’s crises, such as climate change, pandemics, food insecurity and biodiversity loss. Donald outlines the barriers that prevent women from taking their place in the scientific ranks, including societal expectations, prejudice, hostility, condescension and unconscious and systemic bias.

The solutions? These are “often obvious”, Donald says, and range from calling out bad behaviour to serving as a role model, mentor or sponsor. Specific measures are rarely taken, however, because their need is often under estimated beyond the affected group. To help rectify this, Donald offers a helpful table listing practical steps individuals can take to amplify women’s words and achievements and boost allyship. These include requiring unconscious bias training for staff, refusing to participate in events with an unbalanced representation of speakers and not letting certain individuals or groups dominate conversations or tools of the trade.

Donald sprinkles in personal anecdotes, ranging from colleagues equating her research on starch to domestic cookery, to how she navigated family demands by sharing care-giving responsibilities. She is scathing about national academies’ treatment of female researchers and the persistence of low female representation. She decries societal messaging for girls: “I do not believe that a reliance on glitter and magic is going to get a girl anywhere like as far in life as a boy relying on control and power.”

Portrait of young black woman wearing magnifying glasses and inspecting electronic parts in quality control lab.

Athene Donald argues for the importance of contemporary female role models.Credit: Getty

Donald writes about female researchers in many fields, including physics, astronomy, chemistry, biology, botany and mathematics. Some figures are less well known. For example, English philosopher and writer Mary Astell (1666–1731) studied science in isolation in her day. Donald poignantly describes her own discovery of margin notes that Astell had scrawled in a library copy of French philosopher René Descartes’ Principles of Philosophy, confidently and correctly pointing out errors in his arguments. “We cannot know how many other women’s books, annotated or not, have been tossed away over the intervening years,” Donald notes.

Whereas such stories can inspire, Donald argues that today’s students and researchers need contemporary role models: “If girls are going to believe that ‘science is for them’, it is not sufficient to hold up one woman from a period totally different from our own, whose life was one of hardship, if also of fame.” There are many ways to find role models in STEM, such as NASA’s Women in STEM initiative, the television show and outreach project SciGirls on US channel PBS, the non-profit advocacy group Mothers In Science, and FabFems, a database of female STEM role models.

A thoughtful chapter on the importance of creativity and interdisciplinarity in STEM stands out. Hard boundaries between the arts and sciences perpetuate the idea that people can be experts only in one domain or the other. Donald discusses the collateral damage caused to girls and women by having “arts and sciences pitted against each other in some weird sort of zero-sum game”. To drive home the idea that science is for everyone, the book discusses various roles that scientists can occupy, such as the ten classes defined by the UK Science Council: businessperson, communicator, developer, entrepreneur, explorer, investigator, policy scientist, regulator, teacher and technician.

Not Just for the Boys would be a great teaching tool, with each chapter making for a lively class discussion. For example, how are the achievements of female scientists portrayed in the media in a way that perpetuate stereotypes and misogyny? Other themes include neurosexism (the concept of gendered brain differences), the influence of early socialization towards or against STEM topics, the power of stereotypes (such as the fallacy of the lone genius), unconscious and systemic bias, and the impacts of mentoring and collaborative relationships. Donald covers factors that are causing STEM’s leaky employment pipeline for women, including harassment and impostor syndrome. Although the text covers each topic only briefly, the book touches on the key points and provides examples, plots, tables and illustrations.

Practical and engaging, Not Just for the Boys is a valuable tool that makes a clear case for supporting more women to take up and stay in STEM careers.

Competing Interests

The author declares no competing interests.

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