In the UK today, only 13% of jobs in STEM areas (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) are held by women. When you consider that women make up more than half of the UK population, something seems amiss. Sciences, especially physical subjects, have traditionally attracted males. The huge lack of female role models for young women aspiring to become scientists is a serious problem.
When researching for this article, I asked a few friends from scientific and non-scientific backgrounds to name as many female scientists as they could. My (mainly scientist) twitter followers found it easy, mentioning famous women scientists such as Rosalind Franklin and Dorothy Hodgkin. My non-scientist friends could only name Marie Curie. Considering that only 43 out of 835 recipients of the Nobel Prize have been women, this was unsurprising. More disappointing however was that the female scientists I asked could scarcely come up with more. When asked to name famous male scientists, meanwhile, the list was endless, naming men both living and dead. David Attenborough and Brian Cox are both household names across the country. Dr Alice Roberts, meanwhile, is much less well known despite her fascinating programmes.
However, we should not despair yet. The lack of female science role models has not been overlooked. The bias of men to women is slowly decreasing as more and more women choose to take up undergraduate science courses. Organisations such as ScienceGrrl and WISE are working hard to try and improve the presence of women in STEM. WISE is on a mission to increase the 13% of women in science to 30% by 2020, working at every stage of the pipeline from schools up to employment.
As important as increasing the number of women in science is, we must beware the perils of positive discrimination. The pressures of meeting a quota can, in unfortunate cases, lead to situations where under qualified women are hired over much more suitable male candidates. The only solution for this is to make sure that the women applying to these jobs are as qualified as the men. And this begins with their education. We should be attracting young women to take up sciences at A-level. Parents should encourage their children to enjoy sciences from a young age, and science toys should no longer be seen as male toys. Only recently, Boots received criticism when their ‘Toys for Boys’ range included Science Museum branded toys, whilst ‘Toys for Girls’ included dolls and tea sets. Science toys should be aimed at all children. We should be moving away from the stereotypes and stop classifying people who enjoy science as ‘nerds’ and ‘dorks’. A recent BBC show ‘Some Boffins With Jokes’ asked if ‘regular citizens’ could enjoy jokes told by scientists. Of course, as with any career, you get some scientists who come across as a little strange. But you find just as many who are happy, sociable and confident, and this is how science professionals should be portrayed.
Gender equality in science cannot happen overnight, or even over the course of a few months. That said there is definitely room for improvement on the ratio of men to women in scientific jobs. As more women are encouraged to pursue careers in STEM subjects, more will reach the heights that allow them to be role models to those younger than them, and this will then enthuse the next generation. As the current mostly-male generation of senior scientists begin to retire, they will be replaced with a more even spread of scientists. Hopefully, as this happens, the mission of organisations like WISE can be met. Or at least this woman hopes so.
by Izzy Webb- a first year PhD student in the lab of Prof Phil Poole