In the last year, I have felt and visibly noticed a change, not just in the scientific community, but the public’s perception of women in science.
Yesterday (11th February 2018) marked the UN’s designated ‘International Day of Women and Girls in Science’. A day which loudly celebrates and promotes the empowerment of women in science through education, employment and recognition.
This day has fuelled movements all over the world for over a decade, inspiring change not just across the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) sector, but infiltrating into the much wider public and political psyche.
Colouring the immense admiration I felt for all the women I saw tweeting and blogging about their lives in STEM yesterday, was the undeniable feeling that there is still more to be done.
The UN’s own website for the International Day of Women and Girls in Science states that:
“According to a study conducted in 14 countries, the probability for female students of graduating with a Bachelor’s degree, Master’s degree and Doctor’s degree in science-related field are 18%, 8% and 2% respectively, while the percentages of male students are 37%, 18% and 6%.”
As a female doctoral (PhD) student this stunned me. 37% of men at Bachelor’s degree level vs. just 18% women. This disparity is not down to academic ability. This is down to how young women and girls perceive a career in science and how we, as role models, parents and teachers present careers and leaders in science.
Controversially, in certain situations, meetings, conferences or talks, even chatting to a friend, when the phrases ‘international women’s day’, ‘women in science’ or ‘women in STEM’ are mentioned I can still sense an underlying tension lurking, I can feel the invisible battle lines being drawn, the unsaid opinions palpable.
There is still a resistance to change. Albeit, I like to think, by a minority of individuals. A resistance, essentially, to equality. The root cause of this, the one I most want to believe, is perhaps the singling out of separate, distinct, honorary ‘international women’s days’ in the absence of ‘international men’s days’ (which although I’m sure do exist – would be stamped out as sexist in an instant). I in theory understand this logic, however, I whole heartedly support the promotion of powerful women as role models across STEM subjects – we truly need them to inspire younger generations and to illustrate that you can aspire to be anything, no matter your gender. Nonetheless, we must not forget the message here is gender equality.
Thankfully these frustrated undercurrents are not common in my life as equality generally surrounds me in both my work and personal life. But they still exist in ways which I doubt they exist for my male counterparts in science. For example, I have, upon meeting someone for the first time, had them address my male GCSE work experience student (he was 15!!) instead of me, assuming that he must be the researcher. I can only presume this was due to an underlying presumption (however unconscious) that the male in the room must be the scientist. I hear similar stories from friends and colleagues all over the STEM world. There is still progress to be made.
However, GREAT things are currently happenign all over the globe! As with many movements, a push into the mainstream media catalyses progress. The outcomes of this progress are popping up everywhere, from Waterstones to Amazon, Sky to BBC, fictional to non-fictional. Female scientists and role models are emerging all over! And I for one cannot get enough of it!
It has FINALLY become ‘trendy’ to be a woman in science (I for one am relieved!). And although some may argue, quite rightly, that it should not HAVE TO be trendy for a woman to be in science –right now I think that it is just what we need. Young girls who were once mocked for their supposed “geeky” or “nerdy” interests are (quite rightfully!) now the heroines of not just the science world, but modern literature, TV and film also. In my opinion this is just what we need to inspire the next generation of Elizabeth Garrett Andersons, Kathleen Lonsdales and Rosalind Franklins!
Movements and organisations such as the STEMettes, Women in STEM, STEMinist, ScienceGrrl, and WISE are just some of the forerunners making this happen (look them all up!).
Literature has taken a noticable turn in the last few years. Gone are the damsels in distress, replaced by heroines of their own making!
Here are just some of the books which make me grin with glee when I enter a bookshop:
Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls: 100 Tales of Extraordinary Women by Elena Favilli and Francesca Cavallo
Women in Science: 50 Fearless Pioneers Who Changed the World by Rachel Ignotofsky
Lab Girl by Hope Jahren
Headstrong: 52 Women Who Changed Science-and the World by Rachel Swaby
Wonder Women: 25 Innovators, Inventors, and Trailblazers Who Changed History by Sam Maggs
Let’s make these books, these role models and our opinions the norm, another everyday occurrence, nothing to be noticed as novel. Then we will have succeeded.
The MOST MOST MOST important point of all is, quite simply and perhaps quite obviously to some, that you do not have to be a woman to support women in science.
From this woman in science, thank you for reading!
All views are my own.
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