Gender and science

Patch for an anorak bought by Janet Thomson at New Zealand’s Scott Base in Antarctica, 1984
Patch for an anorak bought by Janet Thomson at New Zealand’s Scott Base in Antarctica, 1984

Collecting interviews that place scientific work in the context of a full life story reveals many different ways in which expectations of gender roles shaped scientific careers. Male scientists frequently adopted particular forms of masculine culture that not only served to exclude women, but also left no space for men who did not conform to the prevailing norms and expectations. While these men found themselves outsiders as scientists, they rarely encountered the kind of opposition from family members to a career in science that sometimes faced women, who were often encouraged instead towards what were seen as more appropriate feminine occupations. Once these early hurdles had been overcome women could find themselves struggling for recognition and promotion, questioning their own abilities or denied the opportunities that male colleagues found routine.When opportunities were offered they were determined to prove their worth and demonstrate their capabilities. Women also developed strategies to ensure that they could counter negative perceptions, although few went to the lengths of Stephanie Shirley who adopted the name ‘Steve’ to help secure business for her computer programming organisation in the early 1960s. A range of initiatives to encourage girls into science and engineering can be charted from at least the late 1950s, but few have brought sustained attention to the issue in the way that Athena SWAN (Scientific Women’s Academic Network) has managed since its inception.

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