Not Just for the Boys: Why We Need More Women in Science by Athene Donald; The Exceptions: Nancy Hopkins, MIT, and the Fight for Women in Science by Kate Zernike - review by Patricia Fara

Patricia Fara

Misogyny under the Microscope

Not Just for the Boys: Why We Need More Women in Science

By

Oxford University Press 304pp £16.99

The Exceptions: Nancy Hopkins, MIT, and the Fight for Women in Science

By

Simon & Schuster 411pp £20
 

‘Ben Barres gave a great seminar today,’ one gossipy neurobiologist was overheard remarking to another, ‘but then his work is much better than his sister’s.’ Such a casual aside might perhaps be dismissed with a shrug, but this was no ordinary put-down: Barres had recently changed gender, and, unknown to the gossip, his supposed sister, Barbara, was in fact his former self. In 1996, Barres himself recounted this episode in Nature to highlight how female scientists experience prejudice at every stage of their careers. One particularly galling realisation is that women have internalised their own feelings of inferiority: double-blind experiments have demonstrated that female professors are guilty of automatically giving preference to male applicants for academic positions.

So what’s new? Life is unfair and women are indeed hard done by, but do we really need more books about their marginalisation in the laboratory? For the eminent British physicist Athene Donald, the answer is a loud ‘yes’. In Not Just for the Boys, she insists that protests can only cease when we have true equality, which, she says, should mean that mediocre women can enjoy the same success rates as mediocre men. At present, as the American journalist Kate Zernike emphasises in her new book’s evocative title, The Exceptions: Nancy Hopkins, MIT, and the Fight for Women in Science, female scientists are still regarded as being unusual, or even abnormal, especially if they specialise in mathematical or technological subjects.

Whereas Donald argues from the vantage point of an insider with five decades of scholarship behind her, Zernike observes the world of science from the outside. In 1999, she broke a major news story revealing that Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) had at last formally owned up to

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