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Science

The thousand-year stare: Just how blind are men to women in science and technology?

Here's the scene: 17 young scientists, holding awards. All 17 are men. There's one woman, a doctor in aeronautics - but she's handing out the prizes. Clearly she's an exception. And she's banging a drum for women.

There were some surprising moments earlier this week in Braunschweig. It's a small German city southeast of Hanover you could quite easily overlook - if it wasn't for all the innovation that goes on around there.

On Tuesday, the German Aerospace Society (DGLR) opened its annual congress at the Braunschweig Stadthalle - a theater adorned with decades-old posters for New Year's parties and crooners like Roy Black from the 1960s. It was a perfect juxtaposition to the futuristic high-technology being discussed inside - and simultaneously a reminder that no matter how far ahead you look, your head may never leave the past. You may even miss what's right in front of you.

In the half-empty, main auditorium, 17 very young aeronautics and space scientists from around the country were being awarded prizes for their bachelors, masters and PhD thesis.

Their no doubt groundbreaking ideas featured Earth-shattering titles, such as "A highorder Discontinuous Galerkin solver for incompressible and low-Mach number flows" and "Structure-exploiting optimization algorithms for an optimal control problem with coupled hyperbolic and ordinary differential equation constraints."

Relax. It's not just me. Even those on the stage, running the show, made a point of the cumbersome project names.

One of them was Dr.-Ing. Cornelia Hillenherms of the German Aerospace Center (DLR). Hillenherms, who is managing editor of the CEAS Aeronautical Journal, will know her stuff. But she dutifully asked the young scientists to explain their research - to a room full of experts - and so they did. And a good handful ended with a gobsmacking "and I think I was really rather successful."

Basic differences

Hillenherms says this is one of those basic differences between men and women. Men are happy to boast, and they are keen networkers too. Women are less likely to boast, and aren't the keenest networkers.

"Sometimes during an application process, men will say, 'Yes, I can do that,' or 'That's no problem for me.' While women will say, 'I don't know if I'm good enough, or whether I have the knowledge.' It's not true for all men and women," says Hillenherms, "but as you've just seen, there is a basic difference."

It's a basic difference that can lead to women standing below the line of sight. They can become invisible, no matter how good their work. At the end of the ceremony, with all 17 young, white, male scientists standing proud with their prizes, Hillenherms congratulated them once more before pointing out - in the simplest terms, so even the men could understand - how bad it was that no women had been selected for prizes and that she hoped universities would open their eyes to the women in their institutes.

Cornelia Hillenherms Germany Aerospace Center (DLR)

Hillenherms: Men don't see women in science. It's not bad intention. It's a blindness.

"My impression is that university professors sometimes just don't see the female students," says Hillenherms. "And there are female students. There are 10-15 percent - sometimes more - female students in aeronautics and space. I don't think it's bad intention, though. I think it's a blindness."

Some call it an unconscious bias.

Not just 'basic differences'

From where I'm standing - behind the cheap seats - it's not just about basic differences. Men can be basically ignorant of women. Willfully ignorant. I have often asked male scientists, supposedly highly intelligent people - whose job it is to see connections and "join the dots" - what they think about women in science, and their response has been "don't know / don't care." That is astounding.

Two young, male winners at the DGLR Congress looked totally baffled when I asked whether there should be more women in science. They actually wanted time to think of an answer.

A moment passed and then one of them, Christian Lieber, said there should be more women in science and "there should be a push to start it off, but it should then be left to develop naturally."

The idea seems rational enough, if you believe all professional advancement is based on merit alone. Which it isn't. Certainly not when the system, such as it is through perceptions of "tradition" ("it's always been this way or that"), culture, society, or biology, is jacked up against you.

'Die Astronautin'

So what's to do? Just keep banging the drum?

"When I talk to people at universities and other institutions or industry, I often see they are open-minded. But perhaps it's not enough to be open-minded. You have to keep reminding people to encourage women, or even actively look to see where women are and what they are doing," says Hillenherms.

Or you could start a campaign.

Claudia Kessler, a former member of the DGLR presidium, launched "Die Astronautin" - a campaign to find the first female German astronaut, and get more young women studying natural sciences and engineering.

Astronauten Samantha Cristoforetti und Alexander Gerst mit Angela Merkel beim European Astronaut Center

German Chancellor Angela Merkel flanked by European astronauts Alexander Gerst and Samantha Cristoforetti

More than 400 women applied online, and 70 of the top candidates were presented in the German capital, Berlin, on Wednesday, in front of the Brandenburg Gate. Kessler said she was moved by the number of applicants, many of whom will undergo medical and physical tests at the DLR from October. The DLR is keen to get its hands on the data, because so few women have ever been tested.

Back in Braunschweig, a question from the floor put German astronaut and future International Space Station commander Alexander Gerst on the spot. How would Gerst feel about a female colleague on the ISS? It was a stupid question, really, because he already has female colleagues - take Samantha Cristoforetti among the Europeans. But, still, even @astro_alex, who is as charming as they come, was a little diplomatic, proffering words to the effect of "our science community must reflect society."

True. Plus it sounds good. And, at some point, we want to have achieved a kind of normality, where sex (or any other defining characteristic) doesn't matter. A time when colleagues are just colleagues.

But when will we know we've arrived?

"I don't know," says Hillenherms, who, by the way, is not involved in Die Astronautin. "You would only know in hindsight. But what I've noticed is that many, very young people don't demonstrate for women's rights anymore. They say, 'Everything's easy-going, and we have equality now.' But I don't think this is the case in every field. So we have to keep our eyes open, and see where women are still disadvantaged all over the world."

So keep banging the drum. As it is on Earth and in the heavens.

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