We’ve come a long way

The success of the women’s Euro2022 tournament is a reminder of how far science has come.

Gary Lineker once said that football “is a simple game – 22 men chase a ball for 90 minutes and at the end, the Germans win.” Except that’s not what happened on the night of Sunday 31st July 2022 in London. 

There, we had 22 women chase a ball for 120 minutes and at the end, the English won. In front of 87,192 people, the largest-ever audience for a Euro championships final (either male or female).

Already there are predictions that the tournament win – lest we forget, this is the first time an English football team has won a major tournament since 1966! – will have a catalytic and transformative effect on the women’s game in the UK and beyond. 

It’s fantastic too how BBC Sport and other news websites have started routinely carrying stories about women’s football and women’s rugby alongside bulletins about the men’s game – finally, women’s participation in those sports is being put on the same level in terms of newsworthiness.

Such stories are a welcome reminder, perhaps, of how far the sciences have come in terms of boosting gender equality. 

Contemporary science is light years away from the casual sexism of James Watson’s “The Double Helix”, and the chauvinistic era of women being merely “computers” in labs or having their contributions downplayed or even appropriated. 

Nowadays in most Western countries, mixed (co-education) schools and colleges are the norm. We have roughly equal numbers of male and female undergraduates at Bachelor and Master’s levels in the biological sciences, social sciences, and some other disciplines. Female Nobel laureates are no longer rare. There is no segregation in the workplace. 

As all women’s football teams are acutely aware though, this is still no time for premature celebration. There remain glaring sex inequalities at the higher echelons of the academic hierarchy and – worryingly – the numbers indicate that things are not changing as fast as they should be, given the gender equality at the undergraduate level. This is the so-called leaky pipeline effect (or “missing rung” in the corporate world), whereby better representation at early career stages nonetheless results in near stagnation of gender ratios at senior levels.

We can hope perhaps that the highly visible role played by many female heads of state during the coronavirus pandemic, especially its early stages, will have thrown a light on the ability of female leaders to provide calm and effective direction at the highest level. The widespread consensus that Angela Merkel (Germany), Jacinda Ardern (New Zealand), Tsai Ing-wen (Taiwan), Mette Frederiksen (Denmark) and Sanna Marin (Finland) outperformed chest-beating narcissistic male leaders such as Donald Trump, Boris Johnson and Jair Bolsonaro should never be forgotten. 

And while the biological sciences have achieved gender parity at the undergraduate level, this is still far from the case in many of the physical sciences and mathematics. The Matilda Effect, namely the propensity for credit to be denied to female scientists to the benefit of their male colleagues, continues. No amount of good news statistics can cover up the fact that we are still dealing with entrenched bias in the academic system in which female scientists and other minoritised groups are operating with a significant handicap due to unconscious bias and sometimes more overt misogyny.

So it’s not the end, and it’s not even the end of the beginning. But it is a moment, perhaps, when we can step back and celebrate – like England’s lionesses – how far we’ve come.

Further reading:
Holman et al., 2018 – why the gender gap in science is not closing as fast as it should.
Shaw & Stanton., 2012 – how demographic inertia reinforces structural inertia (the “leaky pipeline”)
Ross et al., 2022 – quantitative analysis of the Matilda Effect, showing women consistently receive less scientific credit.
Henley., 2020 – newspaper article on female political leaders during the early stages of the pandemic.

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