‘Getting women into science’ is a phrase I have heard bandied about a lot lately, and it is really starting to irritate me. As an arts student, I find it patronising and degrading; the idea of nudging women away from the arts and towards the sciences is one that suggests that the choices we have made already are not good enough, that somehow if more STEM were thrust in our faces we would wake up and realise that we were being silly, that sciences are obviously the better subjects.
First of all I should say that I understand why the initiative is in place. It is true that there are disproportionate numbers of boys taking science subjects as opposed to girls, and that many of these girls may be put off by the gender imbalance if they choose to study science subjects beyond GCSE level. I completely support the idea that women should be able to study whatever they want without feeling threatened or intimidated.
The word ‘want’ is the operative word here, because in my personal experience, the idea of ‘getting women into science’ has gone so far that it has swung the other way and now girls are being pressured into studying subjects they don’t enjoy. Two of my close friends who had always shown a leaning towards the arts decided to take science and maths based subjects for A-level, only to struggle, lose all their enthusiasm for the topics and decide that they wanted to do an essay subject at university. Unfortunately, they are now not up to the same standard as their peers who have taken arts subjects all along. When I decided that I wanted to take four essay subjects for A-level (English, History, Latin and German), reactions were mixed, ranging from the mild ‘that’s a lot of writing’ to a slightly sneering comment by a friend’s father: ‘Aren’t you doing maths?’ My teachers also tried to steer me towards science subjects, with such pathetic remarks as, ‘It would be a shame if one day you decided to edit a science journal and your science wasn’t up to scratch,’ after I mentioned that I was vaguely interested in publishing. My reluctance to study science subjects was not due to lack of exposure, nor to a fear that I would be outnumbered by -gasp!- boys, but simply because I was naturally worse at them, I didn’t have the same level of interest, and I didn’t enjoy them as much.
To me, this all seems to come down to snobbery, to the societal notion that science is more useful than, or superior to, the arts. There is a massive difference in the number of men and women studying for degrees in English literature (27% to 73%) but when do we ever hear of schemes encouraging men into English? The statistics are the same even for French, a subject which few people would disagree is useful. Of course science is important – developments in engineering, medicine, physics and technology are all vital to our lives in the modern world. But we need a mixture. What does a doctor do after a long day at work? She watches her favourite programme on TV, or listens to some music, or reads a book. Science helps us to live, but arts give us a reason to be alive.
Yet sometimes even I catch myself poking fun at my choices and laughing at my own hypothetical unemployability. When the school offers another opportunity for women who want to ‘get into science’, I feel like I’m somehow betraying the sisterhood by choosing to stay in a traditionally female-dominated sphere.
Now I’ve decided this has to stop. One piece of advice I’ve heard from many ex-students across the years is simply to ‘do what you love’, and though I may be inexperienced, I agree with the principle. Whether your passion is theoretical physics or translating Tacitus’ annals, you, male or female, should be able to do what you want without being coerced into something which you don’t enjoy. And I hope that in this country we can reach a happy medium of encouragement for women who want to study science, and equal encouragement for those who do not.