Fortune Most Powerful Women

The X factor

Why are there so few female composers? Or Nobel Prize-winning scientists? Are men superior in these areas, or have women simply been given fewer opportunities?

In almost every sphere of public life, historically it has been men who have ‘excelled’. Even today, there are fewer world-famous female conductors or brain surgeons or architects than male ones – certainly fewer than the 50 per cent of the total one might expect, all other things being equal.

Several theories have been put forward to explain this. Some people – usually men – argue that women are inferior to men in certain areas, such as in physical strength. But while women may not able to match men in sports, there is little evidence for male superiority in areas where physical strength is not needed.

An alternative theory is that there is greater variability of characteristics in men. If this were true, there would be more men at the extremes and most high achievers (as well as the biggest underachievers) would be male. Again, there is not much evidence to support this view.

A third theory is that life at the extremes is highly competitive. In this case those exploiting masculine behaviours would succeed, thus favouring men over women.

Perhaps, though, women have simply had less opportunity. In the past many occupations were closed to women (eg medicine until the late 19th century), or women had to leave work when they married or became pregnant. Women’s contributions were belittled or ignored, or credit was given to a male ‘superior’. It is not that women lacked the ability; they just never had the chance.

A sign about the discovery of DNA is edited by a passer-by to include Rosalind Franklin

A sign posted in London in 2014 about the discovery of DNA is edited by a passer-by to include Rosalind Franklin’s contribution.


Danny Birchall

Rosalind Franklin, the scientist whose work help revealed the structure of DNA, was not allowed to eat her lunch in the same room as her male colleagues. Her father initially did not want her to go to university at all. She had a particularly difficult relationship with Maurice Wilkins, who showed her work to James Watson and Francis Crick without her permission. It was Watson and Crick who published the structure of DNA. Franklin died before the Nobel Prize for the structure was awarded, though it’s debatable whether she would have received her fair share of the prize.

Lead image:

Fortune Live Media/Flickr CC BY NC ND


About this resource

This resource was first published in ‘Sex and Gender’ in October 2014.

Genetics and genomics, Statistics and maths, History
Sex and Gender
Education levels:
14–16, 16–19, Continuing professional development