If the pandemic and climate change has highlighted anything, it’s the importance of science in contemporary life, whether in the sphere of biology and medicine or physics and engineering. The need for people working in medicine, automation and the environment is set to become increasingly urgent which means drawing on a dramatically wider pool of talent that includes a far higher percentage of woman and girls.
Gone are the days when we can afford the luxury of gender stereotyping in education. For years, STEM subjects have been perceived as masculine. The archetypal idea of a scientist is a scatter-brained man in a white coat with unkempt hair. The science-as-male-domain myth is self-perpetuating; labelled male territory, the sciences attract fewer women and are consequently dominated by men.
But the past year’s revolution regarding how we lead our lives has underscored the need for a more gender-balanced landscape, the importance of which is flagged up by the United Nation’s International Day of Women and Girls in Science.
To quote the UN’s Secretary-General António Guterres, “To rise to the challenges of the 21st century, we need to harness our full potential. That requires dismantling gender stereotypes. On this International Day of Women and Girls in Science, let’s pledge to end the gender imbalance in science.”
According to the current Global Gender Gap Report of the World Economic Forum (WEF), men are under-represented in areas such as education, health and welfare while women are underrepresented in STEM, and not, it seems, on account of their grades; research into the school grades of more than 1.6 million students undertaken by Nature Communications and published by The Conversation shows that girls and boys perform similarly in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) subjects in high school.
An alternative explanation is that we are entrenched in a bipolar belief that what is masculine cannot be feminine and vice versa; according to recent UNESCO data on girls pursuing STEM subjects in higher education, only 3% study ICT, 5% choose natural science, mathematics and statistics while just 8% opt for engineering, manufacturing and construction.
To address the issue, UNESCO’s UIS agency is developing research to understand what shapes women’s decisions to pursue STEM careers, including education and social factors such as discrimination in the workplace and domestic concerns.
Meanwhile, we can all do something to change the narrative. As parents, we might think twice before relegating technical chores to the male members of the household, such as changing a plug, a light bulb or putting up a shelf. We might check ourselves before assuming that our sons are more suited to science-based gifts or science-oriented outings.
But perhaps it is first essential to celebrate female role models. As far back as the 18th century, women such as Émilie du Châtelet were breaking the mould – with no formal education in science, she published Foundations of Physics in 1940 and a commentary on the work of Isaac Newton; 200 years later, African-American chemist Alice Ball, (1892-1916), developed a ground-breaking treatment for leprosy at just 23; and at the same time Polish chemist and physicist Marie Curie became the first woman to win a Nobel Prize – an award she got twice, first for Physics in 1903 and later for Chemistry in 1911.
These women and many more fought against the odds to triumph in a field they were brought up to believe was out of their intellectual reach. Thanks to them, there are a growing number of female figures changing the world.
Former King’s student, Elisa Martin Perez, who studied biochemistry in Glasgow and is now doing a PHD in Oxford, confirms the need for female role models: “In terms of working in a field which is perceived as male dominant, I think having female figure teaching me science throughout my younger years was key to my training as a woman in STEM,” she says.
One of those involved in her education was Aislinn Green, Head of Science at King’s College Murcia, who heads all-female team in the school’s Science department.
“I feel it is fundamentally important for women to have careers and lead developments in Science,” says Aislinn. “With women increasingly occupying higher positions in politics and business, it is clear that we bring a range of qualities to the table. Women are natural problem solvers and team players, alongside having emotional intelligence to deal with people in a nurturing way.”
Aislinn adds that at King’s College Murcia, there are more girls opting to specialize in Chemistry and Biology than Physics, but many of their top performers at GCSE and A Level are increasingly female. “They show perseverance and attention to detail, alongside a great attitude,” she says. “I can’t say we have done anything in particular to encourage girls into sciences but we are a strong all-female Science department with a female Physics teacher, so who knows what subconscious effect that is having! There are definitely more girls in 6th form Physics now than 2 years ago.”
According to Elisa, King’s College Murcia was central to fuelling her curiosity in STEM. “It allowed me to explore all of its disciplines until I found my real passion, which was Biochemistry,” she says. “In particular, the close interactions with both my science teachers at King’s made it possible to go beyond what was taught in class, and actually develop an interest in scientific literature and podcasts. I believe this is why I eventually decided to pursue a career in science.”