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The tides of Venus

So now all the Lego scientists are women, how is reality building up?

Box front of the new LEGO Ideas “Research Institute” set. LEGO

So who went and bought some of the new Lego mini figures?

Aren’t they super? The set, which is part of the new Lego “Research Institute”, features a female chemist, paleobiologist and astronomer. It has sold out in days, which probable tells you something of the demand for such positive stereotypes. The set came about from a suggestion from Ellen Kooijman on the Lego ideas site, and was accelerated by a seven year old who also noticed the male-bias in Lego figures.

It is fantastic to have new champions of women in science on board. But, I’m sat here at the International Conference on Women in Physics and all I can think about is the backwards steps that Australia has taken when it comes to women and science, and correspondingly women in science. Alarmingly this has been rather rapid too. There’s evidence that the current cuts to science funding are disproportionally affecting women.

On the longer term, the amount of girls in Australia taking two science subjects to the end of high school has dropped. This is usually seen as pointer to them carrying on with science subjects post-18, and this concern has been noted by the Chief Scientist’s office .

I sat today listening to updates of the status of women in physics from 53 other countries, and some stories really stood out. In Iran and Egypt, for instance, there are more female students at undergraduate level in physics than men. In Finland, women physicists are held back by the culture of meetings held in gender-segregated saunas. And when I asked a Japanese delegate about when she saw the barriers to increasing on the 5.7% female membership of the Japan Physics Society she responded starkly: “From birth.”

A bit of a loose trend did seem to emerge though, many countries (Australia, at present included) report an about 30% female population of physicist right up to PhD level. There it drops off. This is not new news, I’ve written about it before, and this is not just confined to physics. What was really interesting was learning today what the Netherlands are doing to address this.

As a country, the Netherlands noticed that they didn’t have enough physicists and chemists(!), and were concerned that this would effect their economic future. So to up their numbers, they decided to appeal to the underrepresented 50% of their population, women.

The Dutch government has funded 88 tenure-track positions, and has set the target that 40% of these should be filled by women – in fact they mandated that 20 of these positions could only be filled by women. I asked the Dutch delegates about how this scheme had been received in the community, and they did say there had been some resistance.

But they explained that the idea of such a mandate had been motivated by the success of fellowship schemes that only recruited women, improving the status of the departments running them.

Quite and aggressive tactic perhaps? It is certainly the most head-on way I have encountered of trying to stop up the “leaky pipeline” of women in science. But, are the more subtle ideas, such as the Lego figures, going to be more constructive on the longer term to remove the gender bias in our society?

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