Today’s International Day is all about celebrating girls and women in STEM. Much has been achieved over the past decades – not too long ago women had to fight to even enter higher education. Despite this discrimination, numerous women still found a way into science and made pioneering contributions to all areas of STEM.
However, this international day also draws attention to ongoing underrepresentation, inequalities and discrimination. These include overarching problems, such as the gender pay gap that are beyond individual actions and often structural problems, unconscious biases and (in-)visibility, and influences on the personal level. Tackling these problems needs the contribution of a diverse group of allies from all genders and backgrounds, willing to ease the path of women into science.
The path into science may be easy, winding, rocky,…
As long as I can remember, I wanted to become a marine biologist. Even before starting primary school this aim was clear. In its pursuit, I attended a secondary school which focussed on STEM subjects, then went on to university to do a B.Sc. and M.Sc. degree in Oceanography (not quite Marine Biology, but still close enough). And here I am today, working towards a PhD degree. Simple and straightforward, right?
However, the more time I spend at universities and research institutes the more I realise how few barriers I encountered and how privileged I was. I had all the support I needed, financially, mentally, you name it. Even before going to the university my family supported my aim, for example, through gifting scientific books. Neither can I recall a teacher at school doubting I could achieve my goals (Thank you!) or propagating outdated stereotypes about Women in STEM. These stereotypes should be contested whenever they are encountered. After all, there is no scientific evidence that proves any gender-dependent eligibility for pursuing a STEM career.
A “typical scientist” is still pictured as male. The lack of role models in certain professions has been put forward as a seed for imposter syndrome, the feeling of not being/knowing enough for a certain position and thus the risk of being exposed. Unsurprisingly, imposter syndrome affects more women than men. The consequence is the nagging question of belonging, which may discourage girls and women to pursue or continue their career in STEM.
One important step is to challenge outdated views of what a “typical scientist” looks like. Concrete action: if you’re a scientist who enjoys working with children then visit a local school to engage children in scientific topics. Or to specifically support girls in STEM, many places offer dedicated mentorship programmes.
The path at the university
When entering university, the question of belonging may arise or be enhanced. If you look around in a lecture hall and see an overwhelming majority of men, it is easy to wonder if you belong there as a woman. Or even worse, you may ponder over the gender imbalance, while some of your male peers may not see this problem or even dismiss it. In contrast, in a supportive group of peers the feeling of belonging becomes natural; awareness and inclusive behaviour are key to achieve this.
Again, I was lucky enough to find such a group, as well as women lecturers and mentors as role models and moral support. For students it is uplifting if issues beyond academic questions can be addressed as well. For neither students nor staff seeing a gender imbalance in STEM subjects should not be the norm. Instead, questioning these imbalances should become the habit as well as the expression of thoughts about it.
The path towards becoming a scientist
Happily, many workplaces have dedicated groups and networks in place to discuss job-unrelated matters in a safe space, such as the Women in Climate network at the University of Exeter and the Met Office. For anyone attending these meetings, independent of gender, it is a simple way to increase general awareness and acknowledge issues, for example, women’s underrepresentation in STEM.
An active listening practice is a key competency to adopt – genuinely listen to understand the issue, not to respond. The listener may even discover their own unconscious biases and assumptions they were unaware of. There are numerous examples of unconscious biases which can impede diversifying workplaces; for example, the gender bias in job recruitment has been shown to favour men over women despite equal qualifications.
However, there are also systematic obstacles for women’s presence and visibility in STEM. A study into academic seminar participation found that women are less likely to ask questions, in relative and absolute terms, if a man asks the first question. Therefore, if you are in the position of chairing a seminar, try letting the first question come from a women to increase their visibility and encourage more participation. Even better would be to invite the first question from a women who is an early career researcher.
Various other examples of systematic problems exist. The good news is that over the past few years the awareness of the existence of these problems as well as biases has increased a lot. This development will continue in the future with the engagement of a growing number of women and allies. Because in the end, every person in the workplace benefits from a non-discriminatory, welcoming and diverse work environment. And workplaces themselves benefit from the diversity of viewpoints, personal engagement and the interaction between individuals.
The path ahead
Easing women’s path into science starts with awareness – awareness of stereotypes, biases, or systematic obstacles. Attending and engaging in discussions on these issues, as well as actively listening, demonstrates a sensibility for the topic. Speaking up when you encounter stereotypes and alike helps creating the feeling of belonging and of being taken seriously.
Although much more work is needed, today is for celebrating all achievements and successes regarding Girls and Women in STEM and their supporters. For the future, my hope is that we continue along this path, together as allies!