Today's STEM Only Supports Men

Globally, only 28% of researchers are women (UNESCO Institute for Statistics). Why?! Our brains aren’t wired up that differently, are they? There are two main influences stalling women’s advancement in science: inherent bias and lacking maternity care.

I have a confession to make. I fell into the trap of assuming that girls just don’t sign up to do science degrees. But I, along with many of you reading this I’m sure, would be wrong. In actual fact, the majority of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) Bachelor’s degrees in the UK have an even number of male and female students. It’s the post-doctorate drop off where we start to see the change. Just to emphasise the problem, take a look at this interactive data tool produced by UIS:

What is particularly interesting is the difference in female representation between the public or academic sectors and the private sector. Clearly, there are issues here that need solving.

There is also a worrying lack of support for women who want to have children - particularly those in their late 20s going into research professions who may become pregnant whilst still in postgraduate study. There is often no safety net of maternity leave and childcare funding in these cases and women are left with no options. But it’s a ‘catch-22’ situation: if you wait to establish your research career before having children, there are further obstacles to overcome, namely the heavy expectations and long hours that are required of researchers. Plus, when you’re committed to a project that you’ve received funding for, you can hardly just find someone to cover for you. At this stage, it’s important to point out that academic institutions have substantially better systems in place for maternity leave and pay, which may explain the differences between the academic and private sectors.

Upon reading an extremely passionate article published in Science magazine in May, I had one of those “Oh, of course” moments. H. Ahmed, who works for a major research institution in the US, summarised her experiences with everyday misogyny and gave many outrageous anecdotes from her own life as well as from her peers’. And do you know what? I wasn’t surprised. I can’t count the number of times I’ve been belittled for being a woman doing a science degree, all in the name of ‘banter’ of course. So I can very well imagine how difficult it must be for women in the greater science industry, where they are the minority gender in the lab. On top of this, implicit bias exists for senior researchers reviewing job applications - out of a woman and a man with identical CVs, they are more likely to hire the man. That information alone is enough to make me wary of following my research dreams!

There is some hope for the future. Projects like the WISE Campaign are working to reform attitudes and systems in the workplace to benefit the modern woman and create equality in the STEM workplace. What we need is to combat everyday misogyny so that it is no longer just accepted and help organisations arrange long-term plans to make sure women succeed in the workplace.


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