Female Professor: Women Oppose Fracking Because they Don’t Understand the Science


Huge numbers of women are opposed to fracking because they don’t understand the science behind the process, a leading female scientist has claimed. Men are nearly twice as likely to support fracking as women, research has shown. Professor Averil Macdonald believes that this is because women often drop scientific subjects at the age of 16, rather than continuing their science education.

A survey by the University of Nottingham which questioned nearly 7,000 people found that 58 per cent of men support fracking, compared to just 31.5 per cent of women. The study found that men are also more knowledgeable about the process: 85 per cent of men correctly identified shale gas as the fossil fuel produced by fracking, against 65 per cent of women.

Professor Macdonald, the chairwoman of UK Onshore Oil and Gas (UKOOG), and emeritus professor of science engagement at the University of Reading, has said she thinks she knows why.

Speaking to The Times, she said: “Frequently the women haven’t had very much in the way of a science education because they may well have dropped science at 16. That is just a fact.”

“Women do tend not to have continued with science. Not only do [they] show more of a concern about fracking, they also know that they don’t know and they don’t understand. They are concerned because they don’t want to be taking [something] on trust. And that’s actually entirely reasonable.”

As the new champion of the shale industry, Professor Macdonald is keen to understand how women can be persuaded to get behind the technology. She believes that, whereas men rely on information to make decisions, women are guided more by “feel” and “gut reaction,” presenting a different kind of challenge to the industry.

“Why are men persuaded? That’s because an awful lot of facts have been put forward,” she said. “[Men] will say, ‘fair enough, understand’. But women, for whatever reason, have not been persuaded by the facts. More facts are not going to make any difference. What we have got to do is understand the gut reaction, the feel. The dialogue is more important than the dissemination of facts.”

The Professor, who is also a board member of Women in Science and Engineering said that the difference is due to women’s instinct to protect children from environmental threats.

“Women are always concerned about threats to their family more than men. We are naturally protective of our children. I would similarly be concerned but I read the literature and I feel comfortable that I understand. What I hope is that I can make the women who are concerned comfortable that the myths they are worried about are myths.”

Although her message is unlikely to go down well with feminists and liberals, who believe that the only differences between the genders are societal, Professor Macdonald is no misogynist. She is keen to see more women at senior levels in the shale industry and science in general, expressing disappointment that the ten executives who interviewed her for her role with UKOOG were all men.

She also hit out at the gender pay gap, lamenting that she was being paid considerably less for her 40 days a year by UKOOG than the £75,000 that Lord Smith of Finsbury was reaping from the industry for his one day a week lead of a task force investigating risks and benefits of fracking. “I might go back and renegotiate,” she said, smiling. “Maybe this is part of the gender pay gap that we need to investigate.”

Women aren’t the only group who are wedded to myths on fracking. The environmental group Friends of the Earth was mocked this week for suggesting that the sand commonly used in the fracking process could pose a cancer risk.

Professor Paul Young of the University of Glasgow pointed out: “Sand is silica. It’s exactly the same stuff that’s on every sandy beach in the country. What are they proposing? That we treat all beaches as contaminated land and pave them over?

“The debate about fracking should be on the basis of reason, not wild, unsubstantiated allegations that reveal that they don’t have the first clue about mainstream chemistry, let alone environmental toxicology.”

Professor Macdonald indicted that she would be happy to have a fracking station at the bottom of her garden. “They are beautifully screened,” she said. “I would rather have that than being overlooked by large numbers of neighbours.”

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