No belles at the Nobel ball

The hand-wringing over the dearth of female faces among nominees for the BBC Sports Personality of the Year is justified - but female scientists have far more cause for complaint. Stockholm, too, is experiencing a disturbing gender imbalance as scientists gather to receive their Nobel Prizes.

The biggest prize in science is a source of startling inequality. Since 1901, 160 people have received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. Four are women. There are just two women among the 191 individuals who have been awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics. Women have reached double figures in the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine - in 2009, Elizabeth H Blackburn and Carol W Greider made it ten out of 199. The newest Nobel laureates in science collect their prizes on 10 December; you won't be surprised to learn that not one of them is female.

It's not that women aren't as good at science. At GCSE level, girls perform just as well as boys in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (Stem) subjects. By A-level, however, things start to change. Fewer girls than boys take these subjects at A-level: 42 per cent are female (in physics, girls comprise 22 per cent of students and in computing, 9.6 per cent). And it keeps getting worse. At undergraduate level, female participation in Stem subjects drops to 33 per cent. By the time we reach the workplace, women hold only 12 per cent of science and engineering jobs.

It doesn't take a rocket scientist, male or female, to work out that, as it's not about ability, it is almost certainly about expectation and aspiration. In a survey of female members of the American Chemical Society carried out last year, half the respondents said that they had been actively discouraged from pursuing a career in science. The worst offenders were their university professors. Yet that, the chemists said, isn't the main problem. Even worse than male professors telling you not to go into science is the dearth of female professors showing you that it can be done.

Role models matter, as the story of Marie Curie shows. She won two Nobel prizes. Her daughter Irène also went into science and, in 1935, she won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. Only two other women have done it since. It suggests, at least, that having a close relationship with a mentor can make a difference.

Don't look now

Unfortunately, Curie's high-profile achievements were a blip. Women account for 9 per cent of all full-time professors in Stem departments in UK universities. Things are slightly better elsewhere: in Norway, the figure stands at 20 per cent and in the US it is 17 per cent. Yet female scientists are, to all intents and purposes, invisible. In the UK, 5 per cent of working women are employed in Stem careers.

Maybe that is why it doesn't occur to careers advisers, parents or other sources of aspiration to suggest Stem careers to female students. Last year, a survey carried out by Girlguiding UK found that while 60 per cent of young women had received information about teaching, and 43 per cent about childcare, just 21 per cent had been informed about opportunities in science or engineering.

The current media coverage won't help the situation. Nobel season marks the only time of year when scientists get their photographs printed in the papers or displayed on widely viewed websites. This year, as almost every year, the pictures of smiling, white-haired men holding their Nobel medals will subtly confirm every stereotype of science and scientists that female students, their parents, teachers and advisers have already absorbed.

If you care about your daughters, look away now.

Michael Brooks's "Free Radicals: the Secret Anarchy of Science" is published by Profile Books (£12.99)

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 12 December 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Unholy war