Is Science Sexist?

In 2017, women made up 24% of those who were employed within STEM-based industries in the UK (WISE, 2017). In 2016/17, just 24% of STEM graduates were female (STEM Women, 2017). Now, I’m no statistician, but even I can see a link, and a huge disparity, for that matter. ‘STEM’, for those unfamiliar with the acronym, is an umbrella term, which stands for Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths.

There’s no need to look closely when it comes to a gender disparity in science. Photo by Ousa Chea on Unsplash

Statistically, the presence of this academic and workplace gap is clear for all to see. Personally however, I’ve never really noticed it. I was surrounded by female mathematicians, scientists and engineers whilst at University. Plus, two close friends from home are currently pursuing further education in STEM subjects. I was keen to talk to them about their experiences.

Rachel Allen is a fourth year Natural Scientist at Trinity Hall College, Cambridge University. She’s currently working towards her Masters in Chemistry, specialising in Atmospheric Chemistry.

Rachel & Mum (Jane) at Rachel’s 21st, June 2018.

Charlie Hatcher is entering the second year of her PhD in Genome-wide analysis of selection and methylation (natural selection) at the University of Bristol. Prior to this, she gained a first class MSci (Master of Science) from the University of Manchester in Genetics.

Charlie and Dad (Chris) at her Graduation, July 2017.

Before we jumped into the debate, Rachel was keen to explain all of the different types of Chemistry. We began with inorganic chemistry (Rachel: ‘like transition metal catalysis’ – to which I replied, of course! I’m a huge fan of metals which transitionally catalyse), followed by physical chemistry, biological chemistry, computational chemistry, analytical chemistry and atmospheric chemistry.

Just this opening discussion highlighted the impressive breadth of just one discipline within a ‘STEM’ subject. Stereotypes and misconceptions are a huge problem. Chemistry is not simply molecules and reactions, a bit of H20 and 02 (the element, not the intermittent mobile network). Chemistry is medicine, space exploration, computational development, and so much more (sounds painfully cliché, but it’s absolutely true!)

Charlie then went on to explain how closely interlinked different scientific disciplines can be, and the skills that connect them, like coding, for example. Whilst in her second year at University, she described how she’d contacted various labs to see if she could both learn to code, and gain some experience whilst doing so… ‘I went to meet a senior male academic who had only seen my name ‘Charlie’ on emails. When I arrived at the meeting he commented that he was shocked that I was a woman since, “women aren’t usually interested in coding” and so had presumed I was a man…’

We’d quickly concluded with problem number one: misconceptions. Charlie’s experience in particular, reflects the growth of non-for-profit organisations like ‘Girls Who Code’, who are trying to tackle this unwritten assumption of women as uninterested in technological specifics. These subject stereotypes and gender-based misconceptions have huge potential to negatively influence both men and women, and their academic choices.

girls who code 1
‘Girls Who Code’ logo. Photo by Girls Who Code.

The importance of female role models was then considered by both Rachel and Charlie. I asked how male-dominated they felt their particular experiences had been. Just this past term, Rachel had had seven different lecturers. Only one was female. Throughout her undergraduate degree, masters, and PhD, all of Charlie’s supervisors have been male. She frequently attends meetings, where she is the only woman present.

Despite this, Charlie explained how lucky she felt to be part of a department (MRC Integrative Epidemiology Unit) where there are women in high up positions. Caroline Relton and Debbie Lawlor are huge personal role models, not only because of how much they’ve achieved in their respective careers, but also because of the support they lend to those who work for and with them. Hazel Phillips (Head of the Biomedical Research Centre in Bristol) provides enormous professional inspiration, because of how vocal she is in addressing the unique barriers facing women in science. Kaitlin Wade, Gemma Sharp and Becky Richmond are a few others we discussed, who despite being at much earlier stages of their careers, still provide so much encouragement.

Hence, problem number two was identified: representation and role models. Just as it is in film & TV, business, politics etc. – seeing those who look like you in roles you aspire to fulfil, gives you a form of psychological self-assurance, that can be achieved in no other way. Female engineers, scientists, technologists and mathematicians do (obviously) exist – it’s just a case of visibility. Understandably, visibility and quantity are directly linked.

Lastly, throughout our conversation – one key word seemed to become the buzzword of the discussion. Confidence, or more commonly, a lack of.

Rachel concluded: ‘I’m actively trying to stop saying “it might be this… it could be this… not sure what you think but it has the potential to be this…” – because before you’ve even given your answer or explanation, you’ve literally said you don’t think it’s right. You’ve challenged yourself.’

She went on to explain, ‘…my Director of Studies is so keen to encourage confidence within his female students. He said right from the beginning, that we’re just as capable, and just as intelligent as the guys – but we doubt ourselves much more easily – as we’d rather say nothing than say something wrong.’

Charlie agreed… ‘I feel like you’re always “up against it” to a certain extent… sometimes I find it hard to ask for help when you do need it because you’re so invested in trying to look competent.’

This female tendency of self-doubt (I am not saying, by any means, that this is true of all women, but I can speak for Rachel, Charlie and myself in this particular case) is key to consider when thinking about the relationship between academia and gender. Academia demands assertion, and confident assertion for that matter. Is this part of the reason why women are getting left behind?

Ultimately, we need to start challenging these misconceptions, developing new role models, and fundamentally – becoming more confident in our own abilities.

Huge thank you to both Charlie and Rachel for giving up their valuable time to chat to me, I so appreciate it… I hope you’ve all found this as fascinating as I have.


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