Women in Science and Science Fiction

Some observations:

Hard Science Fiction is one of the types of fiction I enjoy. A lot of hard SF writers are scientists. They may not be trained in the same discipline as they write in, but they are familiar with the behind-the-scenes stuff that goes on in science. It seems working in science is conducive to writing successful hard science fiction. None of these writers are women.

I remember, many years ago when doing my PhD at Sydney Uni, sitting in the tea room with one of the university lecturers. He was describing to me, how over the years he’d had a fair number of female students, but that at the time of speaking, none of these female student were still working in science.

Yesterday, I went to my daughter’s school for parent-teacher interviews. I saw an Economics teacher (social sciences), a Maths teacher and a Physics teacher. One of these teachers was male. It wasn’t the maths teacher. It wasn’t the physics teacher either. My other daughter studies physiotherapy. Most of her teachers are female.

So it isn’t that women don’t like or don’t study hard sciences. The problem is that for one reason or another, they don’t follow through with it, and, not having the career in science might make them feel uncertain about writing hard SF.

I have many questions: why do many women give up working in science? Why do so few of them write hard SF?

I’d like thoughts from readers. Did you study hard sciences and never pursued a career in science? Or did you give up? Why? What are your thoughts about women in science?

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29 comments on “Women in Science and Science Fiction

  1. I did an applied science degree. At the start I intended to major in maths & biology but I changed from the latter to computing. I’d done chemistry at matric and just couldn’t understand the concepts (also my experiments never worked). I suspected physics would be the same so I never touched it. With maths, I could *do* it but had no understanding of it. Calculus was a struggle. Bio: ecology and associated subjects were fine, but physiology and biochemistry? No thanks.

    This is probably an autistic thing (not handling abstract things very well) but I didn’t know that then. I did know there was no way was I going to purse any of that as a career or even further study. I did stick with the IT though (did a traineeship later, and some small group teaching).

    No way am I going to be writing hard SF now either. It (literally) makes my head hurt. Too many bad associations.

    • As I said above, I don’t think you need a degree in science to write hard SF. But that’s OK, each to their own 😉

  2. I studied physics and astronomy (including a summer internship at a radio observatory in the Netherlands that first introduced me to my adopted country) and ultimately got my bachelor’s degree in mathematics. I started a graduate degree in 3-d computer graphics (the technical side, not the design side), which I did not finish. I worked as an assembly programmer (just a step up from the 1s and 0s) for a few years after that. I’m a co-author on three astronomy papers and co-inventor on a handful of patents.
    All of this I loved doing.
    I stopped working when my second child was born, and after the third was born 19 months later, I struggled to keep my head above water. I never did return to work…three years later, I started translating as a freelancer, and that’s what I’ve been doing ever since. I love doing that, too, but I do sometimes wax nostalgic about my scientific days.
    My background has come in handy: a few years ago, I started a webstore (since closed), and my programming background made it easy to dive into the innards of the open source software I was using. My technical background is a definite plus in my translation work; there’s not much that comes across my desk that I don’t understand. Familiarity with physics concepts is useful in my writing, too.
    I attended a residential high school for science and mathematics (we lovingly called it S&M, from its acronym NCSSM), and of the hundred or so classmates I’m still in touch with via the wonder of FB, very few of us, male or female, are still in the sciences.

    • I worked full-time in science when my second and third children were born. It was easy when they were little, because the money was enough to pay for good child care, but when they grew older and wanted to go on play dates with friends…. argh!

      I really think there should be more part time opportunities in science, especially in Australia, where there are virtually no part-time research scientist positions. They’re all 60-a-week jobs, and it’s no surprise to me that many women scoff at that.

  3. I did biology A-level and scored the highest marks in my school, which was a grammar school. I knew equations off-by-heart and conducted extra experiments, just for fun… I loved biology.

    But I was torn. I loved novels and history too, so also took English and History A-levels. Studying one art, one humanity and one science really suited me. However, you couldn’t go on to do a science degree with only one science A-level, so my relationship with science stopped there. (well, apart from doing a little psychology whilst reading English at Uni, but that’s not really a science is it – tee hee hee!)

    Of course it’s all worked out for the best – now I write speculative fiction and that ticks all the boxes. It suits me best of all 😀

    • You will find that a lot of scientists have second interests, and they’re not all in the exact sciences either. When I worked, there were colleagues interested in music, orienteering, keeping prize-winning chickens and growing mangoes commercially.

  4. I got a bachelor’s in biology, focused on molecular genetics, and did not go to grad school. Could not get a job in the field, either. There are a lot of reasons for that… a lifetime of untreated depression being a big one. I had reached the limits of my ability to fake it.

    Anyway, I suppose it was a disappointment to my parents, both of whom are biochemists and who both worked in the field all their professional lives.

    But I do write hard science fiction. 🙂

    • The reality is that there is little work in science, and if there is, you have to be prepared to move across the world. For some people that is just not a palatable option.

  5. I’ve barely done any science classes (even in high school) but I love to read hard sci-fi and have started writing it a bit, too. I just read tons of books and articles about science, and ask questions when I don’t understand a concept. I think to an extent it works in my favor when coming up with ideas, because I’m not coming from years of learning things a certain way and being immersed in scientific theories that may or may not prove accurate. I think that really helps on the “fiction” end of science fiction.

  6. I have rather a lot to say on this matter. I’m not sure if that’s a good thing or a bad thing, but you have been warned 😉

    I am a physicist/astrophysicist about to start a PhD (in another country, for those not in the know) after having acquired a Masters degree here. My undergrad major was Pure Maths with a minor in Physics (because I wanted to do the maths subjects more than the labs required for a physics major). My MSc was half course work, half thesis (new program replacing Honours, for those familiar with the Australian uni system) and the research was in astrophysics. My PhD is also going to be in astrophysics, albeit in a different area (by choice).

    Having spent 2.5 years hanging around the physics department here, I have seen quite a few PhD graduates submit and move on with their lives. Very few (both male and female) stay in physics research. Most go on to other sciencey/mathsy fields (finance, meteorology, statistics, epidemiology). I only know one woman who has stayed in physics, but then I only know a few men (not counting people such as post-docs and academics whom I know BECAUSE they stayed in the field).

    Some gender stats: apparently, in undergraduate science there are actually slightly more female than male students (I can find the source if pressed; I wrote an essay on the topic for my ethics class). The numbers of women decrease the higher up you go. My personal experience was that in first year advanced undergraduate physics f:m was about 1:3 and that was including some engineering students, not just science students. In third year, my advanced physics classes were down to 5:40 (= 1:8). Interestingly, going from third year to masters, the ratio went to 5:25 (= 1:5). I figure it’s because going so far as to major in physics is much more of an active choice if you’re female whereas some of the boys sort of just fall into it because it’s there and well they have to major in something (anecdotal evidence). Of those five Masters girls, three of us are going on to do PhDs, one hasn’t decided (but probably won’t PhD) and the other I have completely lost track of because I was never really knew her or had much to do with her. I would hazard that, small number statistics notwithstanding, similar things are/have happened with the boys, although with significantly fewer of them going overseas (one of the other girls got into Oxford).

    So at that level, the retention rate isn’t that terrible. One of the major problems is that things like career advancement in research depend a lot on frequent publications and presentations (because that’s what makes the universities/institutions look good). The general culture in science is of hard work, long hours and (single-minded) dedication. Taking time off for child-having—something women are much more likely to do than men—makes getting back into the game more harder in science than in some other professions and part time positions aren’t all that common (although I do know of a few recently created astro positions which, for this reason, are available in both part- and full-time flavours.

    There are a few reasons for there not being that many girls entering into maths/science (though in light of the previous numbers, perhaps I should be saying maths/physics… I think a similar thing happens in the upper ranks of other sciences too, but I haven’t specifically looked into it). From school-age girls are, overall, STILL discouraged from studying maths/science here and in the UK. There have been studies. Again, I can find the sources if pressed.

    One of the commonly cited reasons for there not being enough girls in science is a lack of female role models higher up in the ranks. (And the reason for fewer women higher up is generally blamed on past sexism.) Some people dispute this but, again from personal experience, my head of group at the moment is a woman who goes out of her way to encourage undergrad girls to keep studying physics (as a side note, she also had to put up with a lot of sexist crap while doing her PhD, so there’s some credence in the past sexism argument). As a result, the astro group has the highest f:m ratio in our physics department, particularly among students. (Another side note, we only have 4 female academics in all of physics. It’s a bit sad. The Women In Physics portfolio gets passed between two of them on alternating years, these days.) We’re higher than the astro community at large although astro is in general higher than other areas of physics (maybe because it seems “softer” or more accessible, and “astronomy isn’t really /physics/” and similar mentalities).

    And that’s why there aren’t that many women working in science. Now your other question… I suspect some of the arguments from above might also apply. (And you don’t have to look too far on the internets to find people talking about sexism in SFF and literature in general.)

    • Interesting response.

      There are clearly a lot of factors at play.

      I’m wondering how much it’s true that men go into science, find job opportunities are not that great, but simply have to stick with it or move elsewhere. I know it’s not PC to say so, but I feel that women have the better end of the freedom stick. Our lives don’t, in general, get measured in terms of how successful (or not) we are in our career. In other words, there isn’t the pressure to make it work when it isn’t working all that well, and therefore women ‘allow’ themselves to move on earlier than men would (or can). You can see this as good or bad, but I fell this tends to happen.

      In science, there doesn’t tend to be lot of work, and you have to be prepared to move, internationally. This probably only works if one partner has a science job abd the other a highly portable job. And that is precisely the sort of thing you consider when entering a relationship /sarcasm.

      As you note, you have to stay up with your field of work, and taking extended time off is extremely damaging. I worked through much of my maternity leave precisely for that reason. Part time opportunities are very rare, and yet I cannot see why. Part time research jobs are very common in Europe.

      • That’s true about scarce and non-awesome-paying work. I’m not sure how prevalent it is in other sciences, but in physics, to work in Australia you *have* to have worked overseas for at least a post-doc. This is a small part of the reason I’m off to Sweden for my PhD.

        I do know two couples where both are in the sciences although in both cases the woman has changed from physics to another field (meteorology and epidemiology, respectively).

        I am also really lucky to have a husband willing to follow me across the world. “Traditionally” it would be the other way around, which would have contributed to fewer women working higher up in science.

        Hopefully (with our ARC setting a precedent), more part-time research jobs will become available in the near future.

      • I think the overseas requirement is pretty much a must in all hard sciences. If both partners are in science, this can be a problem, also because the work is scarce, and so you end up competing if you’re in the same discipline, or one partner ends up in a less-than-ideal location if you’re in different disciplines.

        For example when I worked at CSIRO, Townsville was my best locality, but had my husband still worked in animal breeding, he would have had to go to Rockhampton. Fortunately, he switched to working in IT a number of years prior, and that was a much more portable career.

  7. I didn’t start college until I was 35, divorced, with five children all under eight years of age. It took ten years to finish my bachelor’s in geology. I’ve never been sorry I did it, but it turns out that a B.S. in geology is basically worthless if you want to be a geologist. There really are not very many jobs at that level. And they want you to start at near minimum wage, which is fine for a 22-year guy or girl. Well, not fine, but at least possible. I had all those kids and was nearing middle-age. I’d worked for low wages ever since my divorce, and simply could not keep living in poverty. So I went for the job that paid well.

    My degree got me the job – a very good one in the Earth Science Division of a national laboratory. But I was doing quality assurance – office work. I never did a single iota of work in geology, and when that job went away due to budget cuts… that was it. There was no hope of ever working as a scientist.

    I went into a science field because I read science fiction. I wanted to do the things I read about. I just wish I’d had the sense to do it at the right time of my life – when I was young and could take the hard chances.

  8. I studied Maths and Computer Science, and got my equivalent of a Master’s Degree in the aforementioned (France has a complicated system). I do make a living out of my degree, since I’m a Computer Engineer, but I don’t feel very compelled to write hard SF, and I don’t enjoy reading it. I’d be hard pressed to articulate why, but I think it’s the whole “realistic and rigorous” aspect that gets me: hard SF judges that by the yardstick of current science, and that is always evolving by leaps and bounds (even the laws of physics that we thought unbreakable a century ago turn out to be not so correct, or at any rate not so complete). We’re bound to be wrong about what we predict, by several orders of magnitude (especially if we cast the story several centuries into the future). As far as I’m concerned, if any predictions are bound to be way off, then I’d rather throw rigour out the window and have fun…

    Hard SF also tends to degenerate into paeans to science that are just not right. It’s subtle stuff, way beyond what would bother most people, but when you’ve read articles and know a bit about the research scene, it’s annoying (I tend to view it this way: if the author absolutely has to lecture me on science for pages running, it had better be good science). Both my husband–a quantum physicist–and I enjoyed Ian McDonald’s Brasyl, but quite frankly it would have been an immensely better book if it didn’t rely so much on a controversial/dated explanation of quantum mechanics, instead of trying to fit everything into a neat scientific framework (my husband tends to throw those books at the walls. I’m more patient).

    (also, I like realistic characters and well-drawn relationships, and hard SF tends to focus too much on the science to have either of those)

    It’s probably just us; we’re an odd couple, way into the outlier range. But I think that’s why neither of us enjoys hard SF–and it’s hard to write what you don’t enjoy…

    • I took a long time before I dared take the bull by the proverbial horns and use any science subjects in my fiction. It just felt too much like work to me. I can wholly understand why a scientist would write fantasy. LOL.

      That said, I I said to Debbie above, I’ve read hard SF (quite a bit of it actually) where the science is either not particularly prominent or where the story flies well enough without it. I don’t think a lot of what gets sold as hard SF is chockers with science; it’s just based on a plausible cool idea.

  9. I was a biology major and while I loved doing field work, loved ecology, game theory, and my genetics classes, I found myself floundering in my chemistry and physics classes, which brought my grades down to the point that getting into a good masters program would be difficult.

    When I graduated with my bachelor’s degree my priority was getting a job. While I applied for science jobs (among others), the job I actually landed was in the video game industry and I’ve stayed there since. It’s still a male-dominated industry, and I do metrics, trends, and reporting (it’s an info crunchy job), but it’s not exactly working in science.

    • It’s sad, isn’t it, that so few jobs are available in science, and that so many of them are only temp positions.

  10. I had no love at all for science when I was at school, except for biology. With maths, I always felt as if I’d missed out on some fundamental stuff early on in my education, and had no hope of ever catching up. Funnily enough, I felt the same way about sport. When I got a C in O Level maths, I was ecstatic, because it meant I’d never, ever need to study it again. Funnily enough, my sister was completely different. She went to university to study physics, altho’ at some point she changed her degree to something else–comp sci? electronics? not sure. Anyway, she now works as an electronics engineer in Silicon Valley. It’s something to do with programs that test if microchips will actually do what they’re supposed to. I think. It’s possible she had something to do with the chips in the computer you’re reading this on….

    Anyway, some years ago I started reading New Scientist, a weekly magazine here in the UK that summarises some of the science published in the specialist journals. It’s a generalist science mag, balancing its content somewhere between the working scientist and the lay hobbyist. To my surprise, I discovered that I could actually understand a lot of it. Quantum mechanics still leaves me quivering in a corner, but some of the other stuff I more-or-less get. I don’t feel equipped to write hard SF, tho!

    • I think people tend to over-estimate the amount of knowledge needed to write hard SF. Sure, you can turn your story into a science dissertation, as Aliette says, but a lot of what is called hard SF out there doesn’t do that in the slightest.
      As for me, I made the jump to call some of my stories hard SF when Kim Stanley Robinson told us that he has a degree in English. I mean. Serieously.
      I think it’s the hard SF label that people fear, not the science itself. Hard SF isn’t by definition filled with lots of science. It can be, but the only thing the label means is that the worldbuilding is based on an extrapolation of real science.

  11. I was discusing this with a friend at work yesterday. I “failed” year 10 science, way back in the late 70s and I have a morbid fear of maths. But in my mid forties I started to become fascinated with neuroscience, so fascinated that I’m now doing a PhD, which although it is in the creative industries, is on a topic that incorporates neuroscience. I now spend most of my spare time reading neuroscience papers & am a third of the way through reading Fundamentals of Human Neuropsychology – & I really, really enjoy it. I don’t think I have a gift for science that’s gone begging, but I do think that my year 10 science teacher did me a great disservice by discouraging my interest in the sciences.

    • This is a lovely story.

      I worked in science (biology), lost interest because of administrative BS, because there was no part-time work, but now I’m interested again, and I’m devouring scientific papers and university textbooks (especially chemistry and physics). I don’t think I’d go back to formal education, but that doesn’t preclude learning.

  12. The reason I’m not doing science now is too long and complicated to explain here, but in my late 30’s I decided to go back and do what I love. I teach math at the college level, at three schools, and am taking classes full time in astronomy and physics. It’s a hell of a life, and doesn’t leave a lot of time for writing except in the summer. Oh, yeah, I do write too. I started with fantasy because, you know, you can just make that stuff up; it just has to be consistent. I saved all my hard SF stories for when I felt better about my science. I wrote my first novel in that genre a few years ago. It’s called Janus. It’s not selling like hotcakes but people who read it gave it 5 stars on Amazon. Hopefully, I’ll get to finish the sequel this summer. We’ll see.

    But there may be another reason why more women don’t write hard SF…. maybe they do, but it’s not what publishers are looking for. There are many roadblocks to getting published at big publishing houses with big advertising budgets that can get you shelf space in a book store.

  13. I don’t read much hard SF for the same reasons Aliette gave above, whether those impressions are accurate or not. Also I never grew out of wanting to be a wizard when I was a kid.

    I did four years of grad school in physics before dropping out with my masters. I still like science–I find reading scicne nonfiction to be a lot more interesting than science fiction–but going into lab and doing the same thing over and over again got boring. I thought writing about it would be more fun. Then I ended up in the one general journalism program I applied to amongma bunch of science writing programs, and it was a few years before I got back to anything science-related (copyediting journal articles first, and now writing for a company that makes software used by many scientists).

    When I dropped out I felt guilty for adding to the statistics of women who leave science. But even though I sometimes wish I had the PhD, leaving was the right decision for me.

  14. I’m with Betsy’s assessment that the major pub houses don’t like, for whatever reason, women who write science fiction, be it hard or otherwise. But then, I’m an indy with a chip, so take my opinions for what you think they’re worth.

    I failed Chemistry in High School, took the easiest college sciences I could get, and in general despise lab coats and experiments. Math is not my friend in any way, shape, or form, and whatever extends beyond “Ooh, ahh, pretty!” makes my eyes glaze over.

    Yet I put quite a bit of science into my writing. Go figure. I look all over for information on Biology, paleontology, astrophysics, et al, for the sake of making my fiction believable. And I like it, for some reason. Not doing the research, but finding it and realizing that it makes my literary whims more plausible. Maybe my aliens can’t have prehensile tails, but knowing about the fourth trochanter makes them have all the leg power I wanted for them.

    I think most women are not inclined towards harder sciences and that society has built on that preference over the centuries to create “roles”, which give the old-school sexism so many run into. My mother adores hard science of all kinds and won’t watch even popular shows that play fast or loose with the “facts”. There’s so much diversity out there, yet we get stuck on why things are thus-and-so. In my less-than-humble opinion, true equality will happen the day that no one wonders why the ratios are the way they are. Those ratios are the way they are because that’s the choice of the people involved.

    Don’t know that it would ever happen, but what is fiction if not a dream?

  15. I think most women are not inclined towards harder sciences and that society has built on that preference over the centuries to create “roles”, which give the old-school sexism so many run into.

    Sorry, I think it’s the other way around, actually. The reason women are less inclined towards harder sciences is BECAUSE of society discouraging them (subconsciously as well as overtly). It starts from a very early age and there are a lot of factors at play that a lot of people on the internet have been writing about of late (google gendered toys for a starting point, if you’re interested). It has been disproved that men are inherently better at science but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t a whole bunch of subtle gender expectations that are imprinted on us (by the media, for example) from childhood.

    I don’t want to get into a rant or an argument but I just had to point out that saying women in general are less interested in hard science is fallacious because we’re not starting on an even playing field. Of course not everyone is going to be interested in hard science, but there isn’t a good reason for an increasingly large disparity between women than men the higher up you go in the ranks.

    • I’m not 100% sold on this equal interest presumption.

      When you have young kids (ha!) you’ll notice that interest is an innate thing, and nothing a parent can do can change whether or not a child is interested. A parent can certainly foster an interest, but I’ve been involved in a lot of interest groups, and I’d see it time and time again: parents drag their children along to meetings, set them up with whatever the interest requires. The child will go along for a bit, but ultimately, the interest just isn’t there.

      What we are doing less in society (and we should be doing a lot less still) is to tell a child he or she should or should not be interested in something because of their gender, but I strongly suspect that if we gave boys and girls genderless educations, there would always be far fewer female petrolheads than male ones. I’m not even covinced that this is necessarily a bad thing, as long as those girls who want to be petrolheads, and those boys who want to do something considered female are not discriminated against.

      I think a fundamental right for a person is to be able to, within ability, do whatever he or she desires. As far as I’m concerned, that will always lead to lumpiness of distribution according to gender (or religion, or whatever) lines.

      As long as no one is stopped doing what they like.

      Now therein, of course, lies another can of worms, which is really what this post is about. When you look up the hierarchy in the hard sciences, you’ll see few women, perhaps even fewer than in business. What are the obstacles in these women’s way?

      I suspect:

      – Long hours for (initially) little reward
      – Lack of part-time positions
      – Inability to take extended time off for child rearing

      And I cannot, for the life of me (except perhaps the latter) see why this culture still prevails in science.

  16. Well, when I was deciding what to get my bachelors in, it was between history and astronomy. Unfortunately, my math skills are terrible. Absolutely horrible. And there’s just no room in hard sciences for people who need remedial math (algerbra-2 and geometry were as far as I got, and I struggled with those). So, my choice was to spend 4 years getting my history degree, or 4+ years getting my astronomy degree. And for me, not only am I bad at math, but I dislike it to the extreme. I dislike math probably as much as my dyslexic brother hates reading and writing.

    Now words–words I can do. And I still love science. Astronomy, cosmology, biology, love it all. I can conceptualize everything just fine, it’s the calculations that prevented me from perusing it as a career path.

    So, now I attempt to write hard SF while leaning on my husband. He’s got a PhD in electrical engineering and loves science as much as I do. I look to him to help me whenever I think I’m having believability or possibility issues.

    I think part of the reason I was a finalist in WotF was because the story was hard-er SF (I’m actually afraid to label my stuff hard sometimes, for fear of some blatant mistake getting by me and people shouting “That’s can’t be hard SF, that’s impossible!”). It does seem like the genre is a bit stymied in general. There should be more of it out there!

    I read an article a few years ago about the salary gap between men and women in the US that was very interesting. It noted that women in the same jobs as men are being paid the same, but over all in the workforce there is a gap. And it’s due to women not reaching the same professional levels as men. The article cited that women also work fewer hours in general than men.

    I personally see this kind of thing in my husband’s company. The women aren’t as willing to put in as much time as the men. They’d rather spend it with their families than give it to the company. The men however are more willing to sacrifice family time to advance their career.

    This won’t apply to everyone, of course, but I think it might have to do with how women are internally motivated vs how men are internally motivated. One choice isn’t better than the other. Our wants and needs are different, that’s all.

    It probably has to do with culture too. It’s only been in the last century that it’s become acceptable for women to do something full time other than be primary caregivers to the next generation. If we culturally evolve to a place where gender roles stop at able-to-give-birth vs unable-to, more women will probably choose to advance. But until we evolve into genderless beings, there will always be differences between men and women, in all parts of society.

    My very long two-cents.

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