Roles women (are allowed to) play in Science, Engineering and Technology.

A magazine feature from Beauty Parade from March 1952 stereotyping women drivers.

I am becoming quite irritated by some of the recent crop of adverts on British television, particularly the British Airways and Virgin Airways offerings. It became particularly pointed when they ran in quick succession recently.

The British Airways advert traces the history of the men who developed the routes and made flying safer, leaving their women and children safe at home while they took all the risks, through to all the British Airways captains of today who fly the fleet of aircraft safely all over the world. The link is they all follow the motto “To fly to serve” which is stitched into their uniform. The advert contains a very touching image of a woman with babe in arms and a toddler clutching her coat standing bravely in the airfield seeing her husband off on his dangerous journey in his bi-plane.

Contrast this with the Virgin Airways advert. Here glamorous women are floating through the air in a scene reminiscent of the start of a James Bond movie. In the closing scenes of this advert we have the all-male captains in their confidence inspiring grey uniforms flanked by very glamorous all-female flight attendants in their sexy red uniforms and red stilettos.

36 years after the passing of Equalities legislation does British Airways really have no women flight captains or if challenged will they try to lay the responsibility for the stereotyping gaffe at the door of their PR people who commissioned and approved the advert?

And what about Virgin Airways? They appear to have no female flight captains and no male cabin crew. Apparently (subliminally) if young men aren’t good enough to aspire to be captains they have no other way ‘to fly to serve’ and young women can forget about aspiring to fly aircrafts with either of these companies.

Negative stereotypes
Through much of my working life women have been challenging negative stereotyping for both genders. Women can make good car mechanics and you don’t have to be hugely strong to be a vet, an argument used in the past to exclude women. (Most vets deal primarily with small animals so draw your own conclusion). Men aren’t automatically gay if they want to be nurses or hairdressers.

I won’t go so far as to say I thought we were winning but I thought we had made progress. These adverts suggest things are going backwards again. Are these signs of a backlash against women? Perhaps that is too extreme but unemployment is growing faster for women than for men. Is this because there is a stereotype that women aren’t breadwinners and are working for extras like holidays? Or is it because many women find themselves in lower paid, less protected jobs, often part-time, and it is therefore less difficult and less expensive to get rid of them.

The problem I see with stereotypes is they cloud people’s objectivity and clarity of vision and often we are not aware of them as they operate at subconscious level. For example accepting the stereotype of the career husband as breadwinner with the wife caring for the children and working part time to pay for extras, as many in government think tanks appear to believe, makes it easy to ignore the reality of single parent families, women as breadwinner, childless and child free individuals and couples, even ambitious career-minded women. It makes it easier to select, promote, and pay men more.

What about us, the women who have trained as scientists or engineers, mathematicians or IT specialists and who are trying to make successful careers for ourselves? Is this all we are up against?

I want to take a lighthearted but hopefully thought provoking look at the roles women are allowed to occupy in University departments of science, engineering and technology (SET).

Female stereotypes in maths, science and engineering.
I think we have other layers of stereotyping to counter. Over the years I have observed various categories that women in SET are put into.

Early Years
One of the boys
Invisible woman

Career years
Margaret Thatcher type
Dutiful daughter
Token woman
Own person, alpha female

The Mascot
She will be young and attractive, possibly a foreign post doctoral fellow working for a professor or the head of department. Established men cluster around her at conferences, buy her drinks. They may ask her about her research but this is unlikely as they see her primarily as an attractive woman rather than a scientist. She is eye candy, and if she is foreign then she is exotic, and not considered to be a contender.

The Blonde Bimbo
She is also young and attractive, not necessarily blond. She dresses in a feminine way especially at conferences. Men may cluster round, buy her drinks – definitely don’t ask about her research or they may ignore her because they are wary of her. The assumption is with her looks she isn’t serious about a career, is likely to be on the look out for a husband. She isn’t considered to be a contender.

One of the boys
This woman dresses in a more androgynous way, mainly in jeans or trousers and shapeless tops or jumpers and tries to blend in. If her hair is long she will tend to keep it tied back. She drinks pints with the lads on a Friday and can talk about footie and other sports. She may well be ‘blamed’ by her peer group for not being more feminine, and tends not to be sought out at conferences. Again she is not considered to be a contender as only there to find a husband, or because she can’t find one!

If her hair is very short she might be (stereotypically) suspected of being a lesbian.

Invisible woman
She tends to wear neutral clothes so as not to stand out or draw attention to herself. She works hard and doesn’t go to a lot of conferences because she wants to get on with her work, or she only has a few months left of the contract so what’s the point of going to a conference as she isn’t sure she will still be working in the field in a few more months. She is also not considered to be a contender because she lacks impact.

There is a possibility that any one of these women will be labelled as sleeping her way into a job if she makes it to lectureship or career grade by some of the men who had put her into the category in the first place. simply as a way of downgrading her achievement.

Career Years
Some additional roles can be added for those women who are lucky enough to make it to a lectureship or permanent contract.

Margaret Thatcher type
She will tend to be ambitious, single minded, focused and rather ruthless. She will out-compete the men on their own terms, which is likely to make her unpopular but she is probably respected. She may have a champion. If she does it will be someone very senior. She doesn’t help other women – she has made it so they should be able to if they have what it takes. She is politically aware and knows how to play the game.

Dutiful daughter
This woman puts others first and always works hard, in a way reminiscent of daughters in large families who gave up their own lives to look after the family if the mother died, or who stayed at home to look after elderly parents. She tends to be given a lot of low grade, low reward tasks and if she is put on committees it will be low status ones like the library, or the timetable committee or student welfare. She will never be asked to go on the research committee no matter how much money she may bring in.

In industry she may be given good projects but is then put onto a new project when the first is about 90% complete and gets no credit when it is successfully completed by a young rising star.

This is a favoured role for women in many macho departments as it allows men to get on with the important stuff. She is likely to feel marginalised and outwith the power structures but there’s no-one to talk to about it or advise her how to change things. Her promotion prospects are poor because it is impossible for her to tick all the right boxes. She may well be research active and bringing in large grants but it will be collaborative cross disciplinary research that doesn’t get published in the mainstream journals of her subject and the grants won’t count in the department research plan.

Token woman
She is used to show the organisation doesn’t discriminate against women; after all here is an example of a successful woman. Although she herself is unlikely to have power she has a reasonable chance of making progress, at least to lecturer or permanent research officer, because of her strategic alliances. She may not even be aware of these or of her relatively privileged position.

It is likely she did a PhD in the department and stayed in the group providing a service to other researchers because of the techniques and skills she possesses. If this is the case then she is a variant of the dutiful daughter, providing support and assistance. However, she is more likely to receive acknowledgement of her contribution than a dutiful daughter and her name will appear on papers and conference presentations as one of the minor contributors.

She may have come in from outside having reached promotion elsewhere. She is allowed to progress and is likely to have a patron. Perhaps the Dean or the Principal was keen to appoint her as she has a good track record.

She sits within the power structure but may find it difficult to make strategic alliances that will help her to further her career in her current institution and may move on.

Own person – alpha female
She may also have come in from outside having reached promotion elsewhere. She is concerned about values and integrity and will ask awkward questions when required. She may choose not to be part of the departmental power structure so she can comment and criticise. She is her own person because she has already achieved career recognition and success and has nothing left to prove, or because integrity is more important to her than win-lose.

Men are likely to be wary of her and would prefer if she was not a contender.

Stereotypes in law
Just because I said the article is a lighthearted look at roles occupied doesn’t mean it lacks truth and validity. Prof Celia Wells, a law professor at Bristol University has also observed has also observed this categorisation of the roles women are allocated in her subject – perhaps not surprising as of course it is another subject area that deals with rules and regulations. I remember discussing this with her years ago and we had come up with broadly similar categories for the roles that women are allocated, although we may have called them by different names.

Does it matter?
In putting forward these ideas I’m not suggesting that women actively choose any of these roles or are in any way ‘complicit’. Also, I did work in a predominantly male environment so not all aspects of my descriptions will necessarily transfer across to more gender balanced environments.

Although I haven’t worked out if there are corresponding categories for men, you do see low status men (men low down in the hierarchy). How do you recognise them? They are often the ones who teach 1st and possibly 2nd year classes with large numbers, who effectively become ‘dutiful sons’. They are allocated the time consuming low status committees and tasks. These men are generally not viewed as contenders, and it is increasingly unlikely that they will gain promotion with the growing emphasis in universities on how much money is being brought in and the number of publications.

If you look back you will see that women in most of the categories I identified are not viewed as contenders, so no matter their aspirations, in that environment they are unlikely to be taken seriously. This would be damaging for diversity and equal opportunities as even if the institution was operating these policies at high levels, the women would not be ticking enough boxes to be put forward for consideration.

How widespread is it?
I think it is likely to be more prevalent in subject areas like chemistry and engineering where rules and regulations are highly emphasised and where there have been relatively few women. However, as others have observed similar trends in other disciplines such as law it is certainly valid.

What makes a scientist?
A few years ago Channel 4 television broadcast some programmes that explored differences between scientists and non scientists. One key difference is that scientists and engineers tend to look for patterns and repeats. Professor Mike Fiszer of Edinburgh Napier University School of Business explained to me once that many men who are attracted to Maths, Sciences and Engineering lie somewhere along the Asperger, Autism spectrum and as a consequence they prefer subjects with rules, lists and categories as this is how they approach life in general. Perhaps this tendency underlies the creation of categories for the women they work with.

The Channel 4 programmes also looked at why men and women became scientists and they found that women and many men had questions about the World that they wanted to answer and the particular branch of science they were attracted to provided a way for them to try to find the answers. By contrast many adolescent boys find dealing with emotions difficult and they retreat into their heads. Presumably these are the same group that Prof Fiszer referred to and the predictability of their branch of science, engineering or technology provides them with the haven they need away from too much emotion.

In the 90’s a longitudinal study of several thousand students over several campuses in North America was undertaken. One aspect was to explore reasons for drop out from school or switching to a major in other faculties.

It was particularly noticeable that male students in chemistry and engineering rated female students on their courses as less feminine, less attractive than the women did themselves. Whether the women dressed down in jeans and tee shirts to blend in, or dressed up in a more feminine look and wore make up it worked against them.

Later in the study several students were re-interviewed after switching out from chemistry and engineering into non-science majors. Significantly the men who had switched rated the women who had switched as more attractive, more feminine even though their way of dressing hadn’t changed. I don’t recall why the students transferred out but perhaps these men were also uncomfortable in the prevailing culture.

I believe this kind of almost subconscious stereotyping can be very damaging. It works against diversity and inclusiveness and underpins marginalisation and even exclusion of people whose faces don’t fit, who don’t match the stereotype of the scientist, of being white, male, dedicated, objective……

Years ago I saw a photograph of a large all male research group in a chemistry department of an American mid Western university dating back to about the 1870’s. A couple of years later someone researching the history of women in science came across the original photograph of the group. It included two women, one at each side of the picture, perhaps to create a pleasing photographic composition. Records showed they were both active, contributing women chemists.

The explanation put forward for their exclusion was at some point someone had assumed that they must be the lab attendants who washed up the glassware and had cropped the picture to show only the real scientists. In talking about this in the past I have suggested (light-heartedly) that women, or other under-represented groups should ensure they are in the middle of a group photograph so they can’t be cropped out

How can we counter this?
I will look at aspects of career development in more detail in subsequent articles on this site but in the meantime I suggest we should approach our careers more consciously. Women1 should ensure they are plugged in to real support networks be they all female, mixed, subject specialisation, the badminton club, the choir, Women’s Engineering Society (WES), or virtual such as Daphnet, Mum’s in Science, discussion groups.

They should find a mentor or set up a peer mentoring group. They must develop a career plan that honours work life balance and they must work to raise their visibility. They should consider strategic alliances and look for a champion.

This needs to be coupled with and supported by educational training of managers, for example in equal opportunity issues, gender and diversity sensitisation, appraisal and interview procedures.

Final words
This is based on my own observations and experience so it primarily refers to academia. It may not be so prevalent in the real world of work but I would be really interested to hear of other people’s experiences on or off-line so I can refine this model.

About Maureen Cooper 3 Articles
I have experienced many of the key aspects of a women scientist's career, short term contracts, dual career, working mother, chemistry lectureship, redundancy, bullying, setting up as a consultant, successful research in women and science issues that doesn't count. I've retrained as a colour therapist and life coach and I am a healer.

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