By Sabrina Patsch, Universität Kassel and Freie Universität Berlin
Times are changing. It is becoming more normal to see female scientists. I had two female fellow students, one of the physics professors of my university is female and a woman just won the Nobel prize for physics. System changes are slow but once the new generation reaches the age of senior researchers gender parity will be there.
Congratulations! We’re done. Time to lean back, give ourselves a pat on the back and enjoy a merry future.
Wouldn’t it be nice? But – I’m sorry – things are not as easy as that. Studies show  that, if we just keep going on as before, gender parity in physics will be reached in no less than 258 years. As a comparison: the feminist movement started in the late 19th century which would mean that we made only about a third of the way.
There are many reasons for this. Of course, also demography plays a role. When today’s senior scientists were young, they had much less female fellow students than the students have nowadays. But this demographic inertia is not sufficient to explain the slow adjustment in gender parity we see today. Another reason is visualised by the metaphor of the leaky pipeline: there are many women at the beginning of the academic journey but only a few make it until the end. Of course, also not every man reaches top positions in research. But the percentage of women is decreasing from step to step or, to follow the metaphor, from junction to junction. May it be due to hindrances or because they “chose” to leave academia.
Let’s face it: academia does not glisten with promises of a luxurious or secure life. The way to the top goes through numerous countries and uncountable temporary positions without the guarantee to reach the goal at all. Impossible to plan your life – or even the next three years. That perspective is not very attractive and many choose to pursue another career with more security.
But this does not sound like a women’s problem per se, does it? Aren’t men affected by this as well? Of course they are – but still it is only on conferences dedicated to female scientists that this issues are being addressed openly. Changing the system can help to make academia a more attractive place for a lot of bright people who just do not want to live a hermit life for the sake of an academic career.
In addition to women falling of the career ladder, there are also significantly less girls setting their foot on the bottom rung of the STEM ladder in the first place. The reasons for this are again innumerable. Girls do not have enough female scientific role models, they cannot picture themselves as scientists, and girls are “worse at maths than boys” anyway. As for the last argument, it is important to bear in mind that career decisions are usually not made on the basis of absolute but relative abilities. In other words: People usually decide to study what they are best at and not what they are sufficiently good at. So someone who is good at math but even better at something else will most likely decide to study… something else. And indeed: a recent study  showed that the higher reading ability of girls, as compared to their math skills and also the reading abilities of boys, can largely explain the gender gap in math-related fields while the sheer difference in maths performance is not able to do so.
Shouldn’t we encourage everybody to study what they are best at? The subject in which they are most likely to develop their full potential? In principle yes, but the occurrence of this difference in abilities seems quite peculiar by itself. One obvious explanation seems to be the very different education of girls and boys. Girls are, for instance, usually more encouraged to read and dream while boys are expected to be more practical and to make things. Even the most trying parents have a hard time to raise their kids without gender expectations. Our society is full of them. Never have there been more gendered toys, more pink and blue in our world than today. Parents who tried to show their kids that they can become everything they want will be disappointed one day when their little girl comes home from the nursery school telling them that she can’t be a knight anymore and that she wants to be a princess now – the other girls said so.
It’s hard to be a knight amongst princesses. It’s hard to be the only girl in the advanced math course. It’s hard to be the only women on a conference.
And who can blame them for wanting to be just like the other girls? They should not need to justify themselves. They should not need the strength to “be different”. And they should not need to wait 258 years for it.
 L. Holman, D. Stuart-Fox, C. E. Hauser (2018) The gender gap in science: How long until women are equally represented? PLoS Biol 16(4): e2004956. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pbio.2004956
 T. Breda, C. Napp (2019) Girls’ comparative advantage in reading can largely explain the gender gap in math-related fields. PNAS 116 (31) 15435-15440. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1905779116