Normally, defacement of property isn’t something we’d condone. That being said, glass ceilings need to be shattered.
In recent generations, female representation in science, medicine and academics in general has generally been going up, but that isn’t to say the increase in numbers has been an innocent or definite demonstration of changing times.
Because, though female representation has generally increased (and some medical school and nursing environments have come to be dominated by women), there are still systemic barriers in place that undo some of the progress made and leave a very large margin for improvement in the future.
Systemic barriers for women entering science and medicine
Let’s first note that women make up more than half of the students enrolled in med school in industrialized countries—and specifically in the U.S.
So, why don’t those numbers hold up in the actual medical practice? And why on earth is no one talking about that?
Specifically in medicine, women dominate family care, gynecology, nursing and psychiatric positions. Meanwhile, men dominate surgical positions, biomedical research positions and academic positions. While having the vast majority of nurses being women doesn’t sound like a bad thing in and of itself, the problem comes in that the general medical field suffers from lasting gender discrimination that’s no longer talked about now that more women are in the overall medical field.
The same is true for other science-related fields. Multiple examples of discrimination can be observed, but we’ll highlight just two.
- First there’s the hierarchal segregation in science fields, meaning there are fewer women the further you climb up the ladder.
- Just as prevalent is territorial segregation. This is when women in the work force are clustered in certain areas and positions, usually ones deemed more “feminine” and with lower salaries.
Coming back to medicine, having the vast majority of nurses be female while surgical positions are vastly male dominated starts to paint the picture of the gender discrimination in medicine and science in general that takes on both monetary and hierarchal weight.
And no assessment of where we’ve come and where have to go would be complete without talking about the professional attire double standards. Leading up to the 2016 United States presidential election with Hillary Clinton as a candidate, this double standard glowed in the spotlight and has been a revived political talking point since. This refers to placing significantly more importance on how Hillary Clinton (and female politicians in general) dressed and did her hair in comparison to her male counterparts.
The same can be overwhelmingly observed in science, down to the very real need for more professionally-designed, inclusive lab coats. Designer and custom lab coats are important for women entering medicine and women entering science, but the motives by designers offering these products can quickly be derailed to fulfil the double standard talking points.
Sure, women like stylish lab coats when they look good, but it’s important to point out that everyone is out to learn how to look good in a lab coat. This is not and should not be used as an exclusively female talking point. What can be considered specific to this demographic is the need for custom women lab coats alongside the typical unisex coats, seeing as the common unisex coat is clearly designed with male dimensions in mind. Not only will they often be uncomfortable for women in science, they’ll be inefficient and even dangerous.
The simple reality of women perpetually having to ask Google “how do I know if my lab coat fits properly?” symbolizes a clear discrimination in the field, down to the design of generic lab coats that don’t offer a range covering unique professional and demographic needs. The reality that the market even needs a better women’s fitted lab coat implies the lasting negligence to acknowledge female dimensions when designing what is, perhaps, the most important tool and protection in many scientific fields.
How to support change
As with most (if not all) systemic problems, there is no one answer or solution to solve gender discrimination in science and medicine. That said, there are plenty of steps that can be taken to get closer to achieving “gender indifference” in the professional scientific community.
Perhaps one of the biggest root problems leading to the uneven representation in the actual medical workforce begins from a younger age, taking the form of something as seemingly innocent as buying your daughter a princess dress for Halloween. Young boys might go as surgeons or mad scientists, while a young girl might be coaxed into something that works better for Mom and Dad’s idea of a photo op.
This behavior has diminished over the years, but it hasn’t disappeared. This and other related attitudes are reflected in the increasing yet still small percentage of women today who are STEM students, for example. A lot of these pervasive and “automatic” behaviors can seem innocent, especially when kids are young, but the number of young girls who are encouraged and empowered to “play scientist” has still left a clear mark on the professional field.
Another big factor in achieving greater representation of women across science fields is simply hiring more women to positions of authority. History has shown us that this will promote more female participation in these fields in general if promotion and authority are seen as a possible end game without the favoring of male candidates.
One now-famous example of this phenomenon is the success of the women mathematicians at NASA today. A large part of their success (and the now-popular perception that they can make waves and take authority on in the organization) comes from the support of other women on the administrative staff over recent decades. In short, women supporting women is just as important and far more effective when women are in the position of authority to offer this kind of support. For this to be possible, women need to be hired into these influential positions of authority in the first place.
Change is not easy and it certainly doesn’t happen overnight, but it’s definitely worth fighting for at every corner of life—especially in science and medicine. Equal representation and treatment of women in science in medicine isn’t just better for the world, it’s necessary.