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Advanced sexism: why women are opting out of elite science at USyd

Imogen Harper asks why women are outnumbered in the higher streams of science

Image: Huffington Post Image: Huffington Post

The under-representation of undergraduate women in advanced science streams at the University of Sydney shows that sexist structures in academia begin working on day one of first year. Despite there being consistently more female than male undergraduate students in the Faculty of Science, advanced streams, fostering the University’s best scientists, are laying the foundations for the sharp disparity of women in elite science.

Students studying a Bachelor of Science can opt into advanced versions of each unit. It is striking that women are so under-represented in the advanced units of junior chemistry, physics and mathematics over the past five years.

This year, female students made up 37% of the Linear Algebra candidature in first semester, but only 23% of Advanced Linear Algebra. This is not an anomaly.


Dr Jennifer Saleeba, the Associate Dean of Academic Studies, told Honi that the opt-in enrolment procedures were “clearly outlined online and in course material” and that “enrollment is based on evidence of academic attainment.” However the difference cannot be explained by academic achievement: in the HSC, women make up 46% of the Mathematics candidature, 42% of the Extension 1 candidature and 36% of the Extension 2 candidature. The requirement for the mainstream unit was Mathematics, and for the advanced was a Band 6 in Extension 1 or any Extension 2. For chemistry and physics, an 85 in the relevant HSC subject (or equivalent) was required.

This is an example of the well known phenomenon of women self-selecting themselves out of roles for which they are qualified. In a society that says women are never good enough, and criticises confidence, the need to not only fulfil but easily meet selection criteria means that women withdraw from application processes their male peers do not. The broad and malleable criteria provided for advanced streams exacerbates this, allowing young women to dismiss achievements such as a mark just over 85. It is also not surprising that women, knowing that sexism will be a constant in a career in science, are less willing to risk lower marks that can be used against them.

The University cannot maintain these procedures, as they need to counteract these forces through actively encouraging high achieving students from year 12 to engage with these opportunities.

In response to questions concerning the importance of the advanced streams for further study, Dr Saleeba replied that “a student who has only studied mainstream units of study and not advanced curriculum components may still be highly capable of pursuing research studies.” However, the impact of the program cannot be denied – advanced streams are unquestionably correlated with further study, at which point we must ask ourselves how the scientists of tomorrow will interpret the observation that female students disproportionately undertake “mainstream” study, while their male counterparts undertake “advanced” units.

It is irresponsible for anyone to claim that the battle for gender equality has been successful in the undergraduate world and can be shifted elsewhere. The structures which have created this imbalance in the advanced streams need to be interrogated so that, in future, young women are engaged with them from first year. Sexism is plaguing gender representation in science every step of the way, and allowing a self-selecting system to create this hidden gender unbalance perpetuates stereotypes amongst those who matter most to fixing them.

Image: Huffington Post.

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