Member Blog — Dr. Penelope Maher

Click the above tile to read their blog. "My gender is not a disadvantage I need to overcome. Rather, our culture needs to change so that STEM is an inclusive environment for everyone." Dr. Penelope Maher, Research Fellow, University of Exeter.

Since 2015, I have been a post-doc in Mathematics at the University of Exeter. I am a climate scientist and a climate model developer. I co-founded the Women in Climate network in 2018.

I am in a STEM career because my interests have always been supported

There are three things that were instrumental for me entering STEM at university and working as an academic in STEM

  1. I grew up interested in science and this interest was nurtured by my parents.
  2. I was emotionally and financially supported while I was at university. I did not have to work retail, in a bar or restaurant, or in other employment while I was studying.
  3. I am ambitious and I work hard.

This last point I would like to expand on. It might surprise you but I am not naturally gifted at science. Science has never been easy for me. Physics and Maths have always been the hardest for me to learn. But they are the subjects that interest me the most and spark my curiosity. I have always had to work hard and I often struggle. But this grit makes me suited to research. I am comfortable not understanding something and trying to work it out.

I acknowledge my privilege.

I grew up in a loving and supportive family. I come from an upper middle-class family. I am from a first world country. I am white. I do not have a disability. I identify as the same gender as I was assigned at birth. I am a straight. I am a happily married. My husband is a feminist. I own my own home.

All of these privileges I acknowledge. All of these privileges have played a role in my ability to work in academia and live in a country on the other side of the world from where I call home.

I am aware of my disadvantages.

I come from rural Australia. I went to my local high school. I did not have access to the education that many of my University peers had. I overcame this disadvantage by working hard. My educational story feeds my imposter syndrome.

But I am a women in a manโ€™s world. This is unfortunately the reality in STEM today. However, my gender is not a disadvantage I need to overcome. Rather, our culture needs to change so that STEM is an inclusive environment for everyone. We have made a lot of progress in this area in the last few decades, but there is still a lot to do.

Women have all of the attributes needed to make formidable scientists. Women have all of the natural aptitudes for science that men have. Put aside outdated images of what a scientist looks like. Put aside the notion that a mother is the primary care-giver for her family. Put aside the centuries of men telling women they are inferior at science while not giving them equal rights and access to education. If you are in doubt about this because you have not experienced it, then listen to those who have and read more about it. A great place to start is Inferior by Angela Saini.

What does disadvantage women in STEM is:

  • Gender stereotypes that mean as girls our interests in science are not as supported as a boys would be.
  • We are under represented in our undergraduate and post-graduate degrees which can make us question if we belong.
  • There are fewer working women scientists, especially in senior positions, which impacts workplace culture and inclusion.
  • The women who do make it to the top have had to adapt to work place norms which favour cis straight white men, and may have significant privilege in terms of e.g., education.

What needs to change?

We need to support our future women and non-binary scientists:

  • destroy the gender stereotypes that pollute our children’s minds
  • encourage girls to explore science from an early age
  • support young women who choose to do STEM university degrees. Never joke about how many guys she will meet in Math class.
  • mentor these students and show them what working in STEM could mean for them
  • suggest to women students they may be suited to a PhD programs and post-docs.

We need to create educational institutes and work places that are diverse and inclusive:

  • support women PhD students to find post-docs or industry jobs. Tell your colleagues about your great students who are about to complete.
  • write strong recommendation letters and understand your unconscious biases while writing them.

We need to retain women in STEM:

  • close the pay gap: pay your female scientists the same as the men with equivalent experience.
  • promote women at the same rate as men, and ideally at a greater rate to help erode the bias toward men in senior positions
  • make it easy for both women and men to take parental leave and make it easy for them to return
  • advertise jobs in a way that encourages women to apply, then make sure the interview panel does not overlooked someone because of protected characteristics
  • ensure workplaces are free from bullying and harassment and that policies are inclusive for staff from all backgrounds.

There is nothing wrong with women. We do not need to fix women. We do not need to teach women how to speak or act to fit in with existing work place culture. The problem is stereotyping that feeds into work place culture.

What can I do to help?

  1. Small things matter. Let women be heard. Do not dismiss them. Do not talk over them. Do not mansplain their ideas or opinions as though they are your own. Credit their good ideas. Call out microaggressions. Report inappropriate behaviour. Learn more about the challenges around diversity in science (e.g. there are many sessions at large conferences like EGU and AGU). Follow diversity and inclusion activists on social media.
  2. Be an active ally: pick a cause and throw your support behind it:
    • Does encouraging school age girls to explore STEM careers interest you? Then get involved in local initiatives and visit schools.
    • Does reducing the number of women that leave STEM matter to you? Be a mentor. Get active in local networks. Start conversations about what you think should change in your workplace.
  3. ย Acknowledge that changing workplace culture takes time. It is a long road so make sure you maintain your wellbeing first.

On International Day of Women and Girls in Science, I want to highlight that we have work to do to overcome the toxic gender stereotyping that impacts peopleโ€™s choices to enter and remain in STEM careers. But never forget that we are making progress. Let that give you hope and ambition to help create change.

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