Member Blog — Ruth Chapman

Click the above tile to read their blog. "While society might be telling us that girls can study what they want, outdated views [of women] are still sadly entrenched in education." Ruth Chapman, PhD Candidate, University of Exeter

On this, the International day of Women and girls in STEM, I wanted to share some of my own route into science, and the hurdles that I’ve faced along the way. Diversity at all levels in science, while slowly improving, is certainly lagging behind other fields and doesn’t reflect the society we see around us. I hope that with more people sharing their stories, we can acknowledge the challenges, and collectively work together towards better representation.

My own interest in science stated at a very young age, since I was lucky enough that both of my parents were scientists – a privilege that few have. I attended a science specialist girls state school during my teenage years, before moving to a sixth form college and then to the University of Nottingham to study Physics, from where I graduated last year. I am now studying at the University of Exeter, working towards my PhD in the Mathematics department, focused on climate modelling. At every stage of my post-16 education, since leaving an all-girls environment, I have found myself in a minority in most of the rooms I walk into.

I recall when I was 15 having to make the decision to move from my school to a different college since, despite being a science specialist, they didn’t offer the maths A Levels I wanted to take. One of the things I remember most about that move was saying goodbye to one of my teachers. When I told them where I was going and what I would be studying they said “Why on earth would you want to do that?”. At the time I was pretty shocked and brushed it off, this wasn’t the first person that was surprised that I would be studying maths and physics. But this was coming from a teacher at a girls’ science specialist school. While society might be telling us that girls can study what they want, these outdated views are still sadly entrenched in education. Whether it be a clear comment like the one I received, or the fact that all of the qualified physics teachers I had in my school were male, these stereotypes are still around and influencing young girls without us realising.

Moving to college, I found myself in very male dominated classrooms for the first time. I honestly don’t know if I would be where I am now if I was faced with that before the age of 16. I felt that my maths knowledge was always a step behind and I was playing catch up since I hadn’t gone to a private school, or done extra qualifications such as additional maths GCSEs. I felt that I had to work harder and longer to get the same results. I took on extra leadership roles in my college and had a string of extra-curriculum activities and yet got rejected from as many Universities as my peers. Even when I got to Uni, there was a lack of support for women in STEM subjects, and on occasion I got mistaken for other people, in one case for someone’s lab partner for the simple fact that I was the only girl in the room.

Through my teenage years and beyond, I have been a part of and helped to facilitate a number of wonderful outreach programmes which are run by Universities and boards such as the Institute of Physics. Amazing work has been, and is being done to inspire girls into studying STEM subjects. Unfortunately, this is still not reflected in senior science roles and importantly, media representation. Much of the research refers to a ‘leaky pipeline’, whereby the percentage of women in STEM slowly decreases at each stage of academia. It is interesting that in the UK this figure is fairly stable from A-Level through to postgraduate degrees, at about 20% (How Many Women are in Physics?, L.McCullough, 2016, Morgan& Claypool Publishers). It is however abundantly clear that this is not anywhere near to parity and it is generally considered to be much lower when you consider more senior science roles. Statistics for women in physics show that the increase from the 90’s to this current percentage has been incredibly slow, and if we continue at this rate the route to parity will take an incredibly long time. Progress is even slower when we consider ethnic diversity in physics, with the current rates of underrepresented minorities sitting well under 20% in America (Data from American Physical Society,).

Both of these aspects are of importance when considering the question of climate justice. It is well accepted that any climate action must be intersectional. It follows that our science must then also come from a place of diversity, both in gender and in ethnicity and cultural backgrounds. We must therefore, make it a priority to improve the diversity of those carrying out this vital research as a matter of urgency. It will always be the case that science is political, because scientists are not immune to the political culture we live in. By improving the diversity and range of people carrying out this vital research, we include a range of cultural views and therefore our science will be fuller and better for it. I have experienced this myself, moving from an incredibly diverse secondary school in the London Borough of Hounslow, to a much less diverse sixth form college in Surrey. There was a loss of richness in ideas and approaches, particularly surrounding more culturally and politically relevant discussions.
The ‘leaky pipeline’ referred to, is often addressed at the beginning of the educational journey. Most outreach work is focused on inspiring girls into science A-Levels and degrees. I would argue that the lack of representation at the top end of the career ladder is equally, and possibly more important. I strongly believe that this challenge in diversifying science leadership roles needs active improvement, and some of this responsibility falls to the Universities and research institutions. We need tailored career advice, role models, mentoring programmes, leadership and communication training and so much more. Just getting girls to study STEM post-16 is no longer enough. The climate emergency is only ever going to be solved with equal and fair representation in decision making roles. We can no longer afford for women in science to be side tracked into more teaching and pastoral roles as they often are.

I find it no coincidence that I’ve ended up studying at the only University where for both undergrad and postgrad applications, there was another woman present in the room for interview. If we want more women and girls in STEM, and for them to stay in STEM, we need to urgently improve the environment that they enter. Representation and diversity in senior science roles must improve, both for the next generation of scientists coming through, and with the view to improving the science that is done and how it is communicated. The unfortunate truth is that most people reading this are already very aware of what I’ve spoken about. The people that need to hear this, are the ones that aren’t listening- an ironically similar problem to that faced with the climate emergency.

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