Those who irritate us and give us grounds for righteous indignation are our secret benefactors, for there are few states of mind more gratifying than that of righteous indignation. And therefore, in a certain way, I should be grateful to L’Oréal, the enormous French cosmetics company, for having instituted the L’Oréal-UNESCO “For Women in Science” laureate program.
In the arrival hall of Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris there have for some time hung from the ceiling large and elegant posters publicizing these awards, showing women (mainly Japanese) at laboratory workbenches, with the words “Science needs women” emblazoned across them. The posters were still there when I arrived again last week.
Science does not need women any more than it needs foot fetishists, pole-vaulters, or Somalis. What science needs (if an abstraction such as science can be said to need anything) is scientists. If they happen also to be foot fetishists, pole-vaulters, or Somalis, so be it: but no one in his right mind would go to any lengths to recruit for his laboratory foot fetishists, pole-vaulters, or Somalis for those characteristics alone.
One of the main glories of science is that it is universal, or at least approaches universality as nearly as it is possible for a human activity to do. Within a few years of Commodore Perry’s opening up of Japan to the outside world, Japanese scientists were contributing to the (then) new science of bacteriology on an equal footing with Western scientists. But that is not at all the same as saying that science needed the Japanese. It could have got on very well without them.
It is true, of course, that women are demographically underrepresented in the ranks of scientists, but so are many other groups. (This means, of course, that others are overrepresented.) This may be for more than one reason: lack of aptitude or interest, for example, or deliberate or subtle obstructiveness. But historical attempts to recruit scientists according to some demographic criterion or other have not been met with success, even as far as the advancement of science itself is concerned, and have been made by the very worst dictatorships that in other respects have been abominable. Social engineering and engineering are two very different activities. It would be no consolation to know while on a collapsing bridge and about to plunge into the deep ravine below that it had been built by a truly representative sample of the population, and was therefore a monument to social justice.