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Scientists trump popstars as role models for girls

26 August 2010

Drive to change attitudes to women in science is succeeding but new ICM poll shows still more work to be done on public awareness and perceptions.

Nearly nine out of ten (88%) of 18-24 year-olds and two thirds of the British public are unable to name a single famous female scientist, despite scientists being viewed as a good role models, according to a poll of public attitudes to women in science carried out by ICM for the Royal Society, the national academy of science.

Just 12% of 18-24-year-olds polled were able to name a female scientist such as Marie Curie while nearly half (47%) were able to name a male scientist such as Albert Einstein. However, while women are currently less well-known for science, public attitudes to women becoming scientists appear to be relatively progressive. Overall scientists were seen as good role models for girls, proving far more popular than celebrity chefs and popstars.

From a choice of six role model types for a daughter, 47% of respondents chose ‘life-saving doctor’ while ‘Nobel prize-winning scientist’ came second with 20% of first mentions. ‘Olympic gold medallist’ was third (14%) and ‘best-selling novelist’ fourth (9%) with only 5% of respondents choosing a celebrity chef or chart-topping pop star as a suitable role models for young girls.

When asked what career they would like their daughter (real or imagined) to pursue, scientist was the first choice for 18% of respondents compared to 27% for lawyer, 26% for teacher, 17% for nurse, 4% for chef and 2% for builder.

The desirability of science as a career for a daughter dropped noticably between social grades; 26% of AB respondents gave scientist as their first mention compared to 15% of DE respondents while 11% of ABs gave nurse as their top choice compared to 23% of DEs. Men appeared slightly more receptive to the idea of their daughter becoming a scientist - 21% of male respondents gave scientist as their top career choice for a daughter compared to 16% of women. The youngest age group polled (18-24-year-olds) was the least keen on the idea of their daughters becoming scientists – only 11% gave this as their first choice.

Knowledge of the role played by women in major scientific breakthroughs was also low. Just 6% of those polled by the Royal Society knew that a female scientist (Jocelyn Bell Burnell) played a major part in the discovery of pulsar stars, and only 18% were aware that another woman - Dorothy Hodgkin - discovered the structure of insulin.

96% of respondents thought men and women were equally well-suited to a career as a scientist.

Plant sciences expert Professor Lorna Casselton FRS, Foreign Secretary and Vice-President of the Royal Society, said:

“The situation for women in science has changed hugely since I was a young woman struggling to persuade the Science Research Council to give me a postdoctoral grant and to take me seriously as a scientist. Today, the numbers of women reaching the top in science is increasing all the time.

“While it is frustrating many people are still unaware of the contribution made by women to science in the past, overall I am encouraged by the findings of this poll. They suggest public perceptions to women in science are changing. The Royal Society wants to encourage more girls (and their parents) to see science as an achievable and desirable career path. We want to show them that women can reach the top and experience the thrill of being the first person to make a scientific breakthrough. Most importantly we want to encourage them to see science not only as a fulfilling career but one that can change the world and contribute to our quality of life.”