Call to arms over sexism in science

By Kenneth Macdonald
BBC Scotland Science Correspondent

  • Published
Media caption,

A professor at Edinburgh University launches a project to call for equal numbers of male and female scientists

Is science institutionally sexist?

Certainly the statistics make depressing reading. Just one-third of the UK's science undergraduates are female - and only 9% of professors.

Professor Polly Arnold of Edinburgh University wants to change that.

She's used a Rosalind Franklin Award from the Royal Society to commission a book, a film and a website to issue what she describes "a call to arms".

Image caption,
Sophia Jex-Blake led the first group of female undergraduates at a British university

"What we're trying to do is tell people that we have a lot of successful female chemists in the university here now," she says.

"There are some simple things that we can all do to make sure that we give opportunities to all of our best scientists from whatever background."

The project is called "A Chemical Imbalance". It draws on the history of women scientists at Edinburgh University to offer pointers to the future.

Have you heard of the Edinburgh science riot of 1870? Yes, there really was one.

The Scottish Enlightenment seemed to have been forgotten when a crowd of protestors pelted seven women with rubbish.

Their crime? To dare to sit a science exam.

The Edinburgh Seven was the first group of female undergraduates at a British university. Their leader Sophia Jex-Blake went on to become one of the first woman doctors in the UK, albeit not as an Edinburgh graduate.

The Seven had to overcome the resistance of such figures as Professor Alexander Crum Brown.

By all accounts a genius who could have lectured on virtually any subject, Crum Brown was by some standards a progressive.

He fought for the right to teach Indian and Chinese students. But only if they were male.

In 1873 he flatly refused to lecture women. He said he didn't want to give two lectures - and apparently not even Sophia Jex-Blake questioned the notion that men and women could not possibly share the same lecture theatre.

'Bring up children'

But that was then - attitudes have changed. Or have they?

Professor Lesley Yellowlees is the first woman in 172 years to become president of the Royal Society of Chemistry.

She says pockets of sexism persist: "At the AGM where I got my medallion, I had one of our members come up to me and say that it was a disgrace that I was president of the Royal Society of Chemistry.

Image caption,
In 1873 Professor Alexander Crum Brown refused to lecture women

"Because as a female I should be at home bringing up my children."

That was last year, not 1870.

Professor Arnold says the way to achieve a gender balance in science has three main aspects.

"We need to monitor our recruitment," she says.

"We need to mentor, so we can be sure we're encouraging the best people of whatever sex or background to apply for the positions in the first place and post-doctoral level and then at lecturer level.

"And then we need to make sure that we have an environment for everyone to work in that is inclusive and supportive and flexible.

"That's all we're trying to ask."

Sophia Jex-Blake went on to found the Edinburgh School of Medicine for Women. It would be 1892 before a Scottish university admitted a female medical student.

Lesley Yellowlees was the first female head of chemistry at Edinburgh University and is now vice-principal.

As president of the Royal Society of Chemistry she occupies a role once held by Alexander Crum Brown.

Meanwhile Polly Arnold holds the Crum Brown chair of chemistry at Edinburgh.

But both women agree that much more must be done.

And at the current rate, UK science will achieve a gender balance in about 70 years from now.

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