Women in STEM: Events, Challenges – and Why?

I haven’t touched on any political or religious topics on this blog, I haven’t spoken about money or what I think of Donald Trump, and largely I think people believe that feminism belongs in that same pile of topics you-just-don’t-talk-about. I don’t agree.

Feminism is important, and the process of explaining my views, beliefs and actions to help support other women, especially in the scientific community, is necessary. So this week’s blog post is going to be a bit of a brain dump of thoughts inspired by events and conversations over the past week – the week of International Women’s Day. I hope it ends up being a cohesive piece about why supporting women in STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) is a positive and useful thing to do, rather than the feminist rant that’s in my head.

Let’s start with some nice news:

This week I was told I’ve been accepted to take part in Soapbox Science‘s Edinburgh event this July. In their own words: “Soapbox Science is a novel public outreach platform for promoting women scientists and the science they do. Our events transform public areas into an arena for public learning and scientific debate; they follow the format of London Hyde Park’s Speaker’s Corner, which is historically an arena for public debate. With Soapbox Science, we want to make sure that everyone has the opportunity to enjoy, learn from, heckle, question, probe, interact with and be inspired by some of our leading scientists. No middle man, no powerpoint slide, no amphitheater – just remarkable women in science who are there to amaze you with their latest discoveries, and to answer the science questions you have been burning to ask.

I’m going to be talking about clinical trials – why take part in a trial, how participation might be beneficial, and what happens if not enough people take part in clinical trials. It’s not designed to be a propaganda piece, or a talk to try and get people to take part in trials; just an opportunity for me to talk about the work I do and the reasons why I think it’s important, and a chance for members of the public to ask questions and take part in a discussion. There’ll be 11 other women scientists there talking about their own work, and I’m really looking forward to learning about what they do too.

And an online engagement activity for women in STEM:

This month, The STEM Squad are running a photo a day challenge on Instagram – take a look at their Instagram account here. In their own words, they are “An inclusive community of femme-identifying STEM professionals and enthusiasts“. The challenge involves people posting a photograph each day for the whole of March (including #WEARESTEMSQUAD), with the aim of showing the many sides of women in STEM. As I write this it’s currently day 10 and I’ve managed to keep up, I’ve really enjoyed seeing everyone’s posts and following what they get up to each day. It’s so cool to see what every does, how different each career is, and what we all like to do outside of the labs/offices/fields that we’re in day-to-day.

The themes covered in the Instagram challenge are in the picture above, so take a look at the hashtag and join in if you haven’t already!

I was talking to a friend earlier on in the week about the Soapbox Science event and The STEM Squad challenge, and she (very innocently) said, ‘Why is it just for women though? That seems a bit unfair.’

My initial response was to be a bit stroppy – why does every event that involves only women get the whole ‘why not men?’ argument thrown back at it, why can’t we just do stuff as a group of women supporting each other?! The more I thought about it, the more I calmed down. Maybe women in STEM get this weird backlash because people don’t understand the point of why we’re doing these events, these public engagement activities and challenges online. I figured this was a good place to talk about it (Twitter was out because of that time I tweeted about a BBC Three documentary called Men At War and got trolled for at least a fortnight ).

Women are not represented equally in the STEM workforce, in fact the percentage of women in science professional occupations dropped from 50% in 2015 to 41% in 2016. That gives a slightly skewed picture though; 41% isn’t so bad, right? Perhaps, but that 41% isn’t consistent across the board:

  • Only 18% of people in ICT professional occupations are women
  • Only 8% of people in Engineering professional occupations are women
  • Only 14% of people in management positions in Science, Engineering and Technology are women

Being a woman in STEM is not easy – personally I’ve people who are shocked when I say I’m doing a PhD, ‘but you’re blonde!’ like, really? I’m pretty sure that my hair colour has no relationship with my intelligence (feel free to correct me with a methodologically-outstanding randomised trial). Largely though, I haven’t experienced any sort of discrimination at all, just a whole host of supportive and brilliant colleagues with a view weird comments thrown in.

For others though, being a woman in STEM is really tough, and the comments and discrimination women receive puts them off being in STEM altogether, there’s a genuine gender wage gap, and there’s even research to show that women who work in male-dominated workplaces experience heighted levels of interpersonal, workplace stressors.

It’s important to even this gender imbalance out and create equal opportunities for both men and women. Doing events and drawing attention to the problem is one way to try and push that process forward. Creating a positive and welcoming environment for people to learn, ask questions, and actually see what women in STEM look like (see also #actuallivingscientist and #dresslikeawoman), can make a real difference for the next generation of STEM workers.

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