Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better…

Taken from
Taken from

An image surfaced online about a week or so ago now, addressed to a Ms. Kelly from the Director of Public Information at NASA in 1962. In his letter, he commends Miss Kelly’s interest in the space program though however goes on to inform her that currently (nor not also in the foreseeable future) does NASA have programs concerning women astronauts.

This image intrigued me (especially since this image surfaced about a month after the Supreme Court’s verdict on DOMA) where I wondered what life would have been like back then, or during any period in history, where women (or any group of individuals) were denied access to fundemental rights or opportunities. As a society we are currently evolving, though it seems to me that our rights as individuals may be slowly trying to catch up.

A recent study published in PNAS in 2012 found that even in today’s generation, there is a subtle gender bias in science where male students are favoured over female students. In their study, the researchers hypothesised that the science faculty’s perceptions and treatment of students would reveal a gender bias that favoured male students over females. This would be seen in perceptions of competence and hireability, salary conferral and willingness to mentor. In their study, a sample of biology, chemistry and physics professors (127 in total) evaluated the application material of a male or female student applying for the position of laboratory manager. All students received the same material, though were randomly assigned a male or female them, therefore keeping gender the only variable between the two groups.

Figure 1 taken from PNAS Journal
Figure 1 taken from PNAS Journal

Interestingly, the results of their study revealed that both male and female professors judged female students to be less competent and less worthy of being hired than identical male students. The female student was also offered a smaller starting salary and less career mentoring. The paper also suggested that the female was less likely to be hired because she was deemed less competent, possibly due to pre-existing biases against women seen in current media.

The expressed gender biases seen from the faculty were suggested to be, not intentional or stemming from a conscious desire to impede the progress of women in science, but rather from behaviour shaped by unintended bias due to repeated exposure to pervasive cultural stereotypes. Stereotypes that portrayed women to be less competent, though still being more likeable when compared to men.

How then, do we try to combat this gender bias? A case study showed that of all the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) jobs in the United States, currently on 25% of them are women.  Also, women hold a lower share of STEM undergraduate degrees compared to men. Thirdly, a woman with a STEM degree is less likely to work in a STEM related job as compared to male counterparts, rather working in education or healthcare. No definite answer as to why this may be the case, whether due to a smaller proportion of women role models or maybe the work environment being less family-friendly.

One avenue I’d like to briefly look at is the smaller proportion of women role models in STEM fields, in specifics to the number of women Nobel Laureates. Since Nobel Prizes were first handed out in 1901, only 15 women have won the award in Physics, Chemistry and Phisology/Medicine (out of a total of 550 laureates). Though to properly confirm that statement, you would have to look at the proportion of nominations of men and women to see if the percentage of awards equates to the percent of nominations. Nobel has a system that places a fifty-year seal on information relating to Nobel nominations, but after that nominations become publicly accessible on the nominations page of the Nobel website. An analysis of the nominations database for the Nobel Prize in Medicine from 1901-1953 showed that of 5300 nominations, only 69 were of women (1.3%). Of the remaining 5186 male nominees, 62 winners show a percentage of 1.19% receiving the prize, which is comparable to the one prize for women of 1.45% (1 winner of 69 nominations). So, even though the proportion of women nobel laureates was small, it is consistent with the proportion among nominees. Therefore, it can be said that were was no evidence that female nominees in the category of Medicine/Physiology were less favoured by men in the first fifty years of the prize (no conclusion can be made about chemistry or physics or any of the years after 1953).

Though contradictory to their 1962 letter, NASA seem to be very pro-women in their work environment. On June 17th, when NASA announced their new team of eight trainee astronauts, 4 of those trainees were women, the highest proportion of astronaut candidates in NASA’s history. Slowly, more and more women are beginning to be hired in STEM related jobs, more so than ever because of the passing of TitleIX 41 years ago. TitleIX, which stated that no persons in the United States should, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving federal financial assistance. TitleIX has opened the door for women to have equal jobs and hopefully one day equal pay in careers where they are equal or even possibly more qualified than their male counterparts. 

As my girls Beyonce, Kelly and Michelle says

All the women who are independent
Throw your hands up at me
All the honeys who makin’ money
Throw your hands up at me
All the mommas who profit dollas
Throw your hands up at me
All the ladies who truly feel me
Throw your hands up at me

– Independent Woman, 2000, Destiny’s Child

– Written by Rakshet Sachdev
Find more of my in-cohesive ramblings on twitter @rakshet


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