Women in Research: Xiaolan Fu

March 14, 2018 The Wiley Network

Many people tend to believe that women are less creative than men. This could be a potentially critical disadvantage for women entering the fields of scientific research where creativity is highly emphasized and evaluated. There are 36 million people working in STEM fields in China, and more than 40% are female. However, among top scientists and scientific leaders (such as department heads, leaders of scientific societies), only 5% are female.

Psychological studies have found this belief to be wrong. For instance, studies revealed boys and girls generally showed no difference in their performance on creativity tests. The illusion that boys are more creative than girls could be partially attributed to the fact that boys have greater variability in their creativity scores. Moreover, the types of creativity that women have might be different from the types men have. In fact, male and female creativity may be complementary in scientific research. For example, a recent preliminary study found a positive correlation between male students' creativity scores and their scores of aggressive behavior, demonstrating a linkage between creativity and aggressive tendencies in men. This correlation, however, was not found in female students. For females, their creativity scores showed a negative, though not statistically significant, relationship with their scores of aggressive behavior.


Creativity means refuting the old and inappropriate views and establishing the new and appropriate ones. "Destroy the old" and "establish the new" are the two fundamental facets of scientific creativity. Men might be good at "destroy the old" because their creativity was more closely related to their tendency toward aggressive behavior. However, "establish the new" is equally important—if not more important—in modern scientific research. Modern scientific and technological innovation is no longer defined by isolated, accidental insight and breakthrough; rather, they are established through highly systematic human endeavor where the long-term patient and paradigmatic constructive work is absolutely necessary. Creative women and men may complement each other in the balance between "destroy the old" and "establish the new" in the modern scientific innovation system.

On the other hand, a longstanding stereotype of women scientists as “science freaks” may discourage them from participating in STEM. In China, women scientists are jokingly regarded as a third type of human, beyond the dichotomy between men and women. Lack of femininity or even the asexual stereotype of women scientists contradicts the traditional female gender role of longing for family. There are more and more examples of women scientists having not only outstanding academic achievement but also very happy family lives. The ratio of female scientists elected to Academicians of Chinese Academic of Sciences is increasing in recent years. Amongst newly elected Academicians in 2017, 9% are female, and the youngest is only 39 years old.

In fact, the Chinese government is aware of women scientists’ need to balance family and a scientific career, and taking these issues into consideration when establishing science policies. For example, the age limit of young scientists funding of NFSC is five years older for female applicants than male applicants. This new policy enables women scientists to start their science careers later without compromising their family lives. It may also help to reduce prejudice and barriers against female scientists, and help more and more young women pursue a career in science.

Professor Xiaolan Fu is currently the President of the Chinese Psychological Society, and the Director of the Institute of Psychology, Chinese Academy of Science. She is also a mother of a daughter, who is now happily married and pursuing her doctorial degree in psychology at the same time.

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