How can we build a better balance of women in STEM?

What does it take to achieve a fair balance of women in science?


Today is International Day of Women and Girls in Science 2020; a day where we celebrate the inspiring females who have pioneered, are currently working in and aspiring to work in science. But from the off, I want to emphasise how I can write and share this piece today or on other awareness days, but these discussions about celebrating the achievements of women in science, providing them with the recognition they deserve and the fight for more representation across all STEM fields are conversations we need to keep having all year round. Not solely on international awareness days.

Women in STEM and their achievements often go under the radar. After all, while Alan Turing was breaking the Enigma code, Hollywood star Hedy Lamarr was taking a break from the silver screen and inventing a radio guidance system that ended up being the precursor to our modern-day Bluetooth & Wi-Fi. Also, while male scientists Andre Geim and Kostantin Novoselov may have won the Nobel Prize for working with graphene, Stephanie Kwolek invented Kevlar 40 years earlier. So, it is well past time for us to reset the balance.

Science – it’s a girl thing, not a woman’s thing

The ‘leaky pipeline’ is a recurring metaphor about the gender imbalance in STEM and about the concerning fact that many of those who start in the field do not stay in the field long term. The UKRC statistics guide shows that at GCSE level, the split of boys and girls is nearly 50:50 as you would expect as science is all but compulsory at this stage. But as you move up the ladder into A-Levels, higher education and to senior career positions, the proportion of women participating in STEM decreases more and more with only nine per cent of STEM professors being female. While women made up 43 per cent of the total science professional workforce, there are still clear differences between chemical, biological and physical sciences. But this imbalance is even more pronounced in other STEM fields where women only make up 12 per cent of the engineering workforce. In a fast-growing sector where STEM employment is increasing more than six times faster than the overall rate of employment in the UK, the proportion of women in the STEM workforce is worryingly decreasing.

In the name of balance, it may well be the case that the nine per cent of female professors at the time of these statistics is an accurate reflection of the number of women entering into academia a good number of years ago, who now occupy senior professor posts. It is perfectly plausible that the next few years will lead to higher numbers of women going through higher education and onto more senior role thanks to the gender balance efforts that have already been made. But I am not very optimistic on that front as there are many more factors at play.

A ‘structural’ problem?

There seem to be three over-riding and primary leaks in the pipeline that need to be plugged; the education system, the workforce biases and the motherhood penalty.

Many studies and surveys have looked at what young children want to be when they grow up including one from the US where girls were more likely to pick a STEM career than boys. While it is a frequent occurrence that both boys and girls aspire to be scientists, doctors, engineers or astronauts, by the age of six or seven, young girls associate the concept of brilliance with males and the associated stereotypical fields which includes STEM. This is only going to be exacerbated by male scientists outnumbering females in school textbooks three to one, leaving aspiring female scientists and engineers without the female role models they desire. Even outside school, these young curious minds don’t even have a representation of female scientist role models in the media to show the future generations of women that they belong in STEM – something I myself am trying to provide through Instagram. Now don’t get me wrong, I adore the work that Brian Cox, Sir David Attenborough and Lord Robert Winston amongst many more do, but what about the Alice Robert’s, the Hannah Fry’s and the Maggie Aderin-Pocock’s? What about their representation?

For the women who progress through higher STEM education and into the workforce, the outlook is still pretty bleak as female scientists are faced with enormous biases. There are biases against women in recommendation letters for postdoctoral positionsselection of candidates for research positionsduring the peer review processin trying to secure grant funding and in the citations of publications with a female senior author. Then there is the family issue. Employers are less likely to promote a female colleague because they might want to start a family, and if a woman does start a family the route back in is also not an easy path. A recent study revealed that nearly half of US female scientists left full-time science after their first child, compared to only 23 per cent of new fathers leaving or cutting their work hours(10). A constant need to prove yourself on your return, the lack of affordable childcare options and the absence of flexible working options are often cited as reasons.

It appears that no matter what stage of the STEM career path a woman is at, there is something holding them back or against them.

Rebuilding the pipeline

So what can we do? How do we rebuild the pipeline for a better balance of women in STEM?

At an early age, young girls can struggle with confidence and worry about failing, which can lead them to avoid asking questions or volunteering answers in the classroom. And of course, that is what science and engineering is all about – asking questions, getting things wrong and looking for solutions. A report from the Royal Academy of Engineering suggests that primary school teachers should encourage pupils to ‘embrace failure’ and draw on skills to come up with practical ways to solve the problems, to be curious and ask questions. We also need to address the lack of relatable role models. Get more female pioneers into school textbooks, have more female representation in the media and shout about the STEM micro-influencers on social media. The female scientists and engineers of the future can’t be what they can’t see. Break the stereotypes associated with being in STEM. It is not all about research and being locked in labs. The diversity of STEM careers available is endless, so get the career advice into schools and universities to encourage girls to not completely abandon STEM if research is not for them.

But plugging the holes in a pipeline and encouraging more water through isn’t going to do anything about the fact there are significant leaks later down the line. As well as developing initiatives allowing girls to access a STEM career path and support them through their academic journey, we need to invest time in making policies that support women currently in science by addressing issues that are causing them to leave an industry that needs their input. We need to create a work environment that allows everyone to flourish – that includes other even more marginalised groups that I haven’t even had the opportunity to start on in this piece. We need to create a work environment that recognises everyone’s achievements from PhD student all the way up to the professors and everyone in between. Something that the MRC LMS, where I currently work, are aiming to achieve with our Suffrage Science awards– a scheme where pioneering female scientists and engineers are recognised for their contributions and every two years pass on their heirlooms to a woman of their choosing to create an inspiring, ambitious and empowering network of incredible STEM role models.

It is a fix that is not going to be achieved overnight, or by a single person. If we want a sustainable solution to building a better balance of women in STEM, we need a collective effort to plug the holes along the entire length of the pipeline, or better yet, a completely new pipeline. Because every day is the day to shout about the achievements of women in STEM.

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How do you think we can build a better balance of women in STEM fields?

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Disclaimer: I originally wrote this piece for the Imperial Medicine blog in March 2019

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