International Day of Women and Girls in Science – Are We Neglecting the Female Viewpoint?

On February 11, the United Nations celebrates the International Day of Women and Girls in Science. Last year, it was dedicated to all the female scientists who have been fighting at the frontline against the coronavirus 1. This topic is still highly relevant, as female scientists in all fields are affected by the new situation, as is shown, for example, in lower publication numbers due to increased care work. This widens the gender publication gap and may deprive girls of important role models.

Am 11. Februar feiern die Vereinten Nationen den Internationalen Tag der Frauen und Mädchen in der Wissenschaft. Im letzten Jahr war er allen Wissenschaftlerinnen gewidmet, die an vorderster Front gegen das Coronavirus gekämpft haben 2. Dieses Thema ist noch immer äußerst relevant, denn Wissenschaftlerinnen aller Fachrichtungen sind von der neuartigen Situation betroffen, was sich zum Beispiel in geringeren Publikationszahlen aufgrund von vermehrter Betreuungsarbeit zeigt. Dies vergrößert den Gender Publication Gap und kann dazu führen, dass Mädchen wichtige Vorbilder verloren gehen.

DOI: 10.34879/gesisblog.2022.59

Certain people – men, of course – discouraged me, saying [science] was not a good career for women. That pushed me even more to persevere.”

Françoise Barré-Sinoussi (Nobel-prize winning French virologist)

Girls and Women in Science

In 2018, when the then German Chancellor Angela Merkel announced that she would not be available for another term after 2021, people joked that they would just keep saying “Bundeskanzlerin” and not suddenly use the male form just because a man might be in office again after 16 years. After all, he could also find himself in the female term. Merkel was an exceptional incumbent, not only because she was the first woman to hold this office. She is a pragmatic, unpretentious woman from the former German Democratic Republic who holds a doctorate in physics, has no children, and has been repeatedly accused by the media of appearing cold or unemotional. With all these attributes, she certainly does not fit the typical gender role model.

This makes it even more important that women like her are also visible in the public eye. The corona pandemic has brought many female scientists to prominence, but not nearly as many as male colleagues. The topic of women and girls in science begins in childhood with gender stereotypes in school and stretches through the educational career into professional life. In this blog post, we draw on data from the Eurobarometer 2010 and 2017 3 4 as well as the European Values Study (EVS) 2017 5 to shed light on gender stereotypes, education, and the representation of female scientists during the pandemic.

It’s All About Biology – Or Is It?

For decades, there has tenaciously persisted a phenomenon called neurosexism. This dubious and now frequently disproved branch of science claims that the brains of men and women are fundamentally different and that, therefore, women are less successful in science and other fields. While in the past the aim of this ‘science’ was to prove women’s inferiority, it has now moved to a “hunt for proof of male-female ‘complementarity,’” meaning that “women are not really less intelligent than men, just ‘different’ in a way that happens to coincide with biblical teachings and the status quo of gender roles” 6. Thirty-eight percent of respondents from the G7 countries still agree very much or somewhat that “[m]en’s brain and women’s brain are different, which explains that men have rather more aptitude for science and women for literature” 7. But even if we put aside the biology argument, there still remains the socialization argument – or, in other words: it has always been this way. Many people might claim that gendered division of labor and specialization are essential for a society to function properly, that everything is easier when roles are sharply defined. If girls and women are pressured to conform to these traditional gender roles, they might not consider a career in science a suitable path for them 8.

Attitudes toward gender roles are also regularly measured in surveys, such as the Eurobarometer 9. One can see in Figure 1 that both in Bulgaria and Germany, an overwhelming majority of respondents think that women are more likely than men to make decisions based on their emotions. Surprisingly, there is almost no gender difference for German respondents. When it comes to the opinion that women are housewives, the picture is somewhat different. In Germany, contrary to Bulgaria, women and men alike mostly disagree (or at least tend to disagree) with the traditional perspective that the most important role of a woman is to take care of her home and her family. However, this might have changed during the last two years. German sociologist Jutta Allmendinger has warned against the re-traditionalization of women during the pandemic due to care work, part-time work, or working from home. According to her, this development could throw women back in their progress by as much as 30 years 10.

The Hare and The Hedgehog

When we look at science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) careers, women are underrepresented in many countries. However, if we look at school education, “girls generally receive better grades […] and clearly outperform boys in reading literacy” 11. How do these two findings fit together? The theory of the ‘leaky pipeline’ could provide an explanation. It understands the way from secondary school through university to the workplace as a pipeline from which women leak out more than men do, for instance, due to a lack of female role models or a chilly climate towards women in science 12. So, although girls perform better than boys in school, they often cannot profit from this advantage later – the ‘hedgehog’ is already there. But there is also good news. Since the last two decades, a clear trend has become apparent in women’s share of habilitations in Germany: whereas in 2000, it still had only been 18%, by 2020 it had risen to 35% 13. A reason other than the leaky pipeline could also be that fewer girls pursue an educational path in the first place because society in general or their parents, in particular, consider boys’ education to be more important. Figure 2 visualizes how EVS 2017 respondents in four different countries feel about this question. Every fourth respondent in Azerbaijan agrees or agrees strongly that a university education is more important for a boy than for a girl. The exact opposite picture can be observed in Norway: about 97% disagree or disagree strongly with this statement. Poland and Italy lie in between.

Breaking Up the Old-Boys-Networks

2021’s International Day of Women and Girls in Science motto was “Women Scientists at the forefront of the fight against COVID-19” 14. While only very few people could have named even a single German virologist in 2019, we are now throwing around names like Drosten, Brinkmann, Wieler, or Ciesek as if they were famous movie stars. To be sure, there are female scientists who have made it into the limelight of talk shows and info-podcasts, thanks to their expertise. But the vast majority has been and still is male. Two studies commissioned by the MaLisa-Foundation have found that among the experts in TV formats covering the corona pandemic in April 2020, only one in five was female. The proportion in online reporting was even lower, with only seven percent 15. This is also surprising because the gender distribution in medicine is relatively balanced (while the proportion of women researchers in Germany is generally only 28%, which is the third-lowest in the EU 16. But also, apart from the representation problem in the media, the corona pandemic has an impact on women scientists. During lockdowns, many childcare facilities closed and left mothers with an increased care load. In May 2020, the proportion of scientific articles with a female first author fell by seven percentage points 17, which led to an aggravation of the already existing gender publication gap.

What can be done to break up the ‘old-boys-networks’ 18 and get more female scientists to the top of their fields? Or is this even necessary and desirable? Figure 3 shows the feelings of respondents from the Eurobarometer (2010) about governmental measures to improve women’s representation in scientific professions and whether they think that more women would lead to better research. Unsurprisingly, women are more supportive of both of these ideas.

The data analyzed here show that there is much variation across countries regarding the representation of women in science and the attitudes towards women in science. It remains to be seen how many female scientists were able to use the pandemic as a stepping stone and how many were instead slowed down by it in their scientific work. We wish all the female scientists at GESIS and, of course, everybody else as well a very

Happy International Day of Women and Girls in Science!


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  2. United Nations Women (2021). In Focus: International Day of Women and Girls in Science. New York. (
  3. European Commission and European Parliament, Brussels (2012): Eurobarometer 73.1 (Jan-Feb 2010). TNS OPINION & SOCIAL, Brussels [Producer]. GESIS Data Archive, Cologne. ZA5000 Data file Version 4.0.0,
  4. European Commission, Brussels (2019): Eurobarometer 87.4 (2017). TNS opinion, Brussels [producer]. GESIS Data Archive, Cologne. ZA6924 Data file Version 1.0.0,
  5. EVS (2020): European Values Study 2017: Integrated Dataset (EVS 2017). GESIS Data Archive, Cologne. ZA7500 Data file Version 4.0.0,
  6. Eliot, Lise (2019). “Neurosexism: The Myth That Men and Women Have Different Brains.” Nature 566:453–54. doi: 10.1038/d41586-019-00677-x.
  7. Statista (2021). “Share of respondents from G7 who agree on stereotypes about women in 2020 [Graph].” (
  8. Blickenstaff, Jacob Clark (2005). “Women and Science Careers: Leaky Pipeline or Gender Filter?” Gender and Education 17(4): 369-386. doi: 10.1080/09540250500145072.
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  10. Anne Will (03 May 2020). “Raus aus dem Corona-Stillstand: Hat die Regierung den richtigen Plan? [Talkshow].” (
  11. Leuze, Kathrin, and Marcel Helbig (2015). “Why Do Girls’ and Boys’ Gender-(a)Typical Occupational Aspirations Differ across Countries? How Cultural Norms and Institutional Constraints Shape Young Adolescents’ Occupational Preferences.” WZB Discussion Paper No. P 2015-002. WZB: Berlin. (
  12. Blickenstaff, Jacob Clark (2005). “Women and Science Careers: Leaky Pipeline or Gender Filter?” Gender and Education 17(4): 369-386. doi: 10.1080/09540250500145072.
  13. Statista (2021). “Frauenanteil an den Habilitationen an deutschen Hochschulen von 2000 bis 2020 [Graph].” (
  14. United Nations Women (2021). In Focus: International Day of Women and Girls in Science. New York. (
  15. MaLisa-Stiftung (2020). “Geschlechterverteilung in der Corona-Berichterstattung: Wer wird in Krisenzeiten gefragt?” (
  16. Statistisches Bundesamt Destatis (2021). “Frauen in der Forschung: Deutschland gehört zu den EU-Schlusslichtern.” (
  17. “Zahl der Publikationen von Frauen sinkt.” (25 June 2020). Forschung & Lehre. (
  18. UNESCO (n. d.). “Frauen in der Wissenschaft.” (

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