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STEM: where are the women?

What’s your favourite shocking statistic about the lack of women in science in the UK? I set out to find my own top 10 after a Fabian Women’s Network debate on the subject in Westminster in June. Some of these statistics...


What’s your favourite shocking statistic about the lack of women in science in the UK? I set out to find my own top 10 after a Fabian Women’s Network debate on the subject in Westminster in June. Some of these statistics were as follows:

  • A top veterinary school degree has 80 per cent female undergraduates enrolled on it but no female professors teaching it.
  • In chemistry 50 per cent of undergraduates are female but only 6 per cent of professors are female.
  • 22 per cent of physics A-level students are female and 7 per cent go on to become professors.

These statistics leave a nasty taste in one’s mouth. There is clearly some progress but it’s too slow; we’re 50 years behind the US in terms of equal opportunities in science for women.

So what defines this lethal landscape causing so many to stumble between school and the top jobs? It seems that the rot starts in our children’s early years with some shocking gender stereotyping that we have complacently allowed ourselves to fall into. For instance: “Shops tell us that science is a boy’s thing.” That statement was made by a boy in London in June 2012, at the beginning of a pilot project created by neuroscientist Dr. Laura Nelson (called Breakthrough Stereotypes) and trialled in a primary school. The project was designed specifically to counter gender stereotypes in science for primary school students – a problem identifiable from an early age in young children.

The statement also highlights the role that retailers and marketers have in perpetuating gender stereotypes. However, retailers and marketers arguably only reflect the demand that exists in the market – what sells and who buys. This means that we, as parents, must be on our guard about our own attitudes.

We must also examine adult attitudes in the UK towards science and innovation regardless of gender, which in turn will affect the representation of any British born individual, including women in the science and innovation industries. A senior academic electronics engineer (who doesn’t want to be named) is infuriated by the United Kingdom’s negative perceptions of science and he is not alone. He claims his engineering school would close overnight if it weren’t for overseas students; that applicants for PhD places in electronics engineering are almost entirely from overseas and that, incredibly, PhD scholarships restricted to UK applicants with fees and maintenance paid remain unfilled. Similarly, Paul Jackson CEO of Engineering UK stated that the United Kingdom needed 1 million more engineers. China, in comparison, produced 500,000 BSc graduates and 10,000 PhDs in engineering in 2009. That was three years ago.

The existence of such unfilled scholarships and demand seems to illustrate a deeper problem in attitudes towards science and innovation more generally across the United Kingdom. Sir James Dyson recently bemoaned the lack of good graduate engineers as a consequence of the lure of large City salaries. The status and rewards for scientists and innovators need to be increased to start solving that problem. Too many female science graduates don’t make it through to top jobs but that statistic should not mask the fact that we are losing many male science graduates as well.

Some work is already underway here by representatives of the science community – female, as well as male. One excellent example of a tireless ambassador for science is Dr Maggie Aderin-Pocock MBE.  She is constantly out there, inspiring the next generation of boys and girls, talking to wide audiences in a way that is engaging, enlightening, exciting. We need an army of role models like her, men and yes, far more women, promoting science and raising its profile to make it the career of choice for our best brains before it is too late.

It is also down to scientists, engineers and innovators to raise their status and profile to the British public. People need to understand what they do, how they change and shape the world, how they could lift the country out of recession by attracting high tech companies like Siemens, Nokia and Fujitsu to university neighbourhoods (as is presently happening in China). The UK science community needs to better communicate the excitement of being on the leading edge of innovation and do more to ensure that the science community is a significantly more inclusive and diverse than at present.

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