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The “Vitreous Ceiling”

Jenny Messenger

After becoming the first woman ever to receive the Nobel Prize in economics, Eilnor Ostrom expressed hope that “the recognition…is helping” to increase the number of women in her discipline. This week, scientists at Oxford echoed Ostrom’s call—and her concerns.

In a conference titled “Scientific Research—is it different for women?”, three high-flying female academics reflected on their male-governed fields. Motherhood remained a key issue for all involved: while Professor Ottoline Leyser emphasised that childcare responsibilities should be shared, Dr Blanca Rodriguez was expressly asked how she will cope when her child goes to school. Refreshingly, Dr Peggy Frith focused on gendered differences in perspective rather than pregnancy, suggesting that women see and use career opportunities in a more pragmatic way than their male counterparts.

Scant mention of disproportionate pay and employment rates left the general impression that success in the sciences is attainable across the gender divide. But while these women’s achievements underscored the opportunities for female scientists, they also stood out against “a numbers game”: only 12 women won a scientific Nobel Prize prior to this year, compared to 523 men.

Indeed, the real proof of persistent gender inequity lies in the existence of such “empowering” conferences, and in the need for resources explicitly dedicated to supporting women in science, such as the UKRC and the WISE campaign. Professor Leyser maintained that passion for the job will carry women through their chosen career paths. She may be right, but one wonders how many men need to be told that.

Jenny Messenger is a second-year classics student at Worcester College, Oxford. She is an editor of ORbits.