Wednesday, 29 August 2012

#MFScience survey - the results are in

The 24 hour flash poll* was simply this - find a non-scientist and ask them to name famous scientists: one male, one female. Then we sat back as the answers came in. And they did! Thick and fast, mostly through Twitter but also via our Facebook page - and by generally bugging our own family and friends. 
And the winner is..... 

We confess to having had a hunch about which female scientist would come out in the lead. Marie Curie was our Usain Bolt with 61.3% of the share and the others ate her dust: Rosalind Franklin was next with 8.1% of the mentions. We saw a similar pattern with the male scientists. Albert Einstein was far out in front with 33.3% of mentions and there was a sharp drop-off before Isaac Newton got his 8.3% look in. 

Looking at the way the numbers fall, the contrast between Curie’s lead and Einstein’s seems to be because people can name more male scientists overall. That is, the female mentions were distributed amongst fewer names, so Curie has less competition. Out of the male scientists we see 25 original names, whereas there are 14 in the female group. We’ve subtracted fictional characters from this count! Yes, we got some of those.... 

The other reason for Curie’s massive lead is that we see more repeats in the male scientist group: 40% of the men were mentioned more than once, compared to 28.6% of the women. When selecting a male scientist to mention, it seems like the non-scientists we asked had a greater pool of men at their fingertips.  

“That woman who.....”

We excluded something else from our ‘unique mentions’ count, but only for the women because it just didn’t come up for the men. We had 3 responses that were a description of a woman scientist. These were: “that woman who didn’t get recognition for her work on DNA”, ‘that cancer lady” and “the lady who invented Kevlar”. We’ll help out by telling you that we think they meant: Rosalind Franklin, Marie Curie (because it is well known that she developed cancer as a result of her work on radioactivity) and Stephanie Kwolek. 

Er, can I pick you?

Something else to note is that we didn’t get an equal number of responses for male and female scientists. Overall, nine didn’t name a woman at all. Only one didn’t name a man. Three people tried to choose the woman scientist who asked them the poll question! Two responses came with an admission that they couldn’t think of a female scientist off the top of their heads, and didn’t want to cheat. 

We loved (but had to exclude) a happily rebellious voter who gave us 5 females (Emile du Chatelet, Ada Lovelace, Marie Curie, Lise Meitner, Fabiola Gianotti) but joked that they couldn’t think of any males.

Wanted: dead or alive

When we break the list down by number of mentions, 20.8% of the male and 14.5% of the female went to living scientists. Pretty similar, but it would be interesting to see how those numbers look with a larger sample. Overall, historical figures greatly outnumber living scientists. This isn’t surprising: scientists are recognised when they make a significant and lasting contribution to their field. That’s something that often needs historical context. 

Looking a little closer, we learn that 3 out of 7 of the living male scientists were mentioned more than once: Stephen Hawking, 5 mentions; Brian Cox, 4 mentions; and Jim Al-Khalili, 2 mentions. Only 1 out of 8 of the living female scientists was mentioned more than once. This was Jocelyn Bell Burnell: she was mentioned twice. 

Are you ready for your close up?

We asked for famous scientists and everyone on our list has made a great contribution. The majority of mentions went to the great thinkers and innovators we have learned about over the years. But we believe that people also know Stephen Hawking, Brian Cox and Jim Al-Khalili because they see and hear from them on a regular basis. They are visible. 

That’s what we’re trying to do with the ScienceGrrl calendar. To reflect the many women doing great work in the lab and to help the names of female scientists roll off the tongue. Why? A 2011 survey by GirlGuidingUK found that 60% of girls thought a lack of female role models was a major reason for low female entry into STEM careers1. We can keep discussing how and where these women are most effectively seen - on the TV, in our calendar, through their writing, through school mentorship programmes, etc - and we plan to. But one thing’s for certain: you can’t have an invisible role model. 

* Kind of like asking your mates down the pub, but on a larger scale. And just as rigorous.


  1. Thanks for this - I was really interested in seeing the results when I saw your flash poll on Twitter. Great stuff :)

  2. I think that my 13 year old daughter must have been your control subject. She immediately hit upon Einstein, then couldn't think of the name of a female but clutched at the 'Radiation/Cancer woman' before diverting briefly to Florence Nightingale (oh, no hang on she was a medic [Yes, I now know about the statistician]) until finally coming up with Curie.

  3. ooo go on - tell us the fictional ones that came up...

    I wonder if Tesla happened to come up because of the news story earlier this week about the campaign to crowdfund a Tesla Museum that blew its fundraising target clean out of the water.

    Interesting that Jim Al-Khalili appeared - I wonder if you'd have had the same result before he started presenting The Life Scientific on R4 or programmes on TV. Similar for Brian Cox. I think your point about the scientists being visible is absolutely clear - as is the need for for initiatives like ScienceGrrl....

  4. We had Mr Wizard (children's science show, so we commend him!) & Sheldon Cooper/Amy Farrah Fowler from 'The Big Bang Theory'. Though we've since found out (thanks @davidjcraven!) that Mayim Bialik (who played Amy) is a scientist!

    Interesting thought re Tesla - is that anything to do with this rather awesome "Why Nikola Tesla was the greatest geek who ever lived" campaign?

    And yes! We also think if we'd asked post-Paralympic opening ceremony we would have had even more mentions for Stephen Hawking! Be curious. Wonderful.

    Thanks! Have you seen that GirlGuidingUK has recently launched a #realrolemodels campaign too? It's all happening!