On female role models in science

Inspirational female role models like Jocelyn Bell are important for young women in science, says CERN doctoral student Giulia Alice Fornaro


This International Women's Day, I'd like to talk about female role models in science.

Last year I attended an inspiring talk at CERN by astronomer Jocelyn Bell Burnell on the topic of "Women in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM)". Bell shared her personal insights from a career spanning over four decades, during which she has made outstanding contributions to astronomy and the public understanding of science.

When Bell began her university studies she was the only girl in a class of 50 students. "Anglo-Saxon scientific society was mostly male-made and it was very difficult to give different points of view," she said in her lecture. According to Bell, one reason that women tend not to be drawn to STEM subjects at school is the traditional male perspective with which those subjects are introduced and explained: "A lot about engines – and it is not necessary." She illustrated the point with an example. "The centre of gravity in the human body is about 10 to 15 centimetres below the belly button," she said. "In women, that's where the womb is. Why? Evolution. If you have to grow a baby you don’t want to have it in on your wrist – the torque would be too big!" The concept of torque can beeffectively explained using perspectives that may better grab the interest of female students.

After her talk I asked Bell why she thinks more women work in the biological than the physical sciences. "It’s cultural," she said. "In Victorian times, biological science was considered an acceptable subject for women, while other things were not."

I believe that this male-centric culture of science is keeping the proportion of women in STEM subjects low. But attracting women into STEM degrees is not the only issue; we must do more encourage young women to stay in science throughout their careers.

According to CERN's ombudsperson Sudeshna Datta-Cockerill, our working culture plays an important part in making this happen: "I believe that it is up to our Organization to create an environment that is supportive and enabling for both men and women scientists to give of their best," she says.

I think that female role models such as Jocelyn Bell are vital to encouraging young women who are starting out in STEM careers.

Presenting science in a gender-neutral way can also help young women become interested in science in the first place, and much work needs to be done to remove the cultural barriers that discourage women from staying in scientific careers. A woman should not need to give up her femininity to be a scientist. She should have the possibility of being mother or dressing as a woman – and be considered smart and serious. But it is not only for women to make all the effort in order to get recognition.

In an editorial for Science magazineBell wrote: "I no longer believe that making women more courageous, more assertive, 'more like me', is the right way to move forward. Women should not have to do all of the adapting. It is time for society to move toward women, not women toward society."