Isambard Kingdon Brunel. 19th century mechanical and civil engineer. Pioneer of public transportation. British. And the name that 12% of people gave when asked to name a famous female scientist, despite the fact that he’s a dude.
The poll of close to 3,000 everyday Joes and Janes in the UK was conducted by market research firm YouGov and advocacy organization ScienceGrrl and coincides with the latter’s Through Both Eyes report, which focuses on the hurdles women face when it comes to entering STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) fields. One of those hurdles: A lack of female role models. In the poll, via The TES:
“A staggering 12 per cent of people picked the Victorian engineer [Brunel] as their choice of female scientist, while 68 per cent of respondents named Marie Curie as a famous and still-living woman scientist or engineer, despite her being dead for over 80 years.”
I don’t know which would be worse: The poor reading comprehension that would’ve enabled that 68% to skip over the “still-living” part of the second question, or all those people (68% of 3,000 is 2,040 people) thinking Marie Curie is still alive.
The situation for women and girls who might want to enter STEM fields is particularly dire in the UK, which has the lowest proportion of female engineers of any country in the European Union. “There is broad recognition that girls and women represent untapped talent, and that enabling them to realize their potential is as much about growing the UK economy as it is about social justice. Why then, despite widespread concern, is progress frustratingly slow?…,” asks Through Both Eyes, available to read in full here.
“Our society isn’t neutral, it is highly gendered. The reason these hurdles are invisible is that they are so deeply embedded. We must look through both eyes to detect the unconscious biases that permeate our society, homes, classrooms and workplaces before we can start to dismantle them. Empowering individuals with real choice and freeing ourselves from social stereotyping and cultural expectations is better for girls and women, but also for boys and men.”
Part of that empowerment, says ScienceGrrl director (and neuroscientist) Dr. Anna Zacheria, will come from an increased awareness of female scientists to serve as role models for young girls. “It all comes back to how much relevance there is to girls when it comes to Stem subjects,” she says. “Girls who do go into science tend to have that connection already there, through family or similar, but we need more role models in all parts of life, from TV to the classroom.”