The miss­ing half


Focus-Science and Technology - - CONTENTS -

Sci­ence still has some­thing of a gen­der gap, with women hugely un­der-rep­re­sented in some fields. We spoke to four fe­male sci­en­tists to find out why that might be…

Back in the 19th Cen­tury, Ada Lovelace car­ried out pi­o­neer­ing com­put­ing work on the An­a­lyt­i­cal En­gine with Charles Bab­bage, at a time when few women were schooled in maths and sci­ences. Ada Lovelace Day VQ in­crease the pro­file of women in these ca­reers and in­spire the next gen­er­a­tion of sci­en­tists, en­gi­neers and math­e­ma­ti­cians. This is im­por­tant, be­cause there are around 40,000 skilled STEM jobs left va­cant each year in the UK.

The UK’s grow­ing sci­ence, en­gi­neer­ing and tech­nol­ogy in­dus­tries are cry­ing out for peo­ple with STEM A-lev­els, yet stu­dents ap­pear to not be se­lect­ing these sub­jects. This is par­tic­u­larly marked among girls, with just 19 per cent choos­ing two STEM sub­jects at A-level com­pared to 33 per cent of boys. Ac­cord­ing to the cam­paign­ing body Women into Sci­ence and En­gi­neer­ing (WISE), com­put­ing, fur­ther maths and physics at A-level have par­tic­u­larly low pro­por­tions of fe­male en­trants, at 10, 28 and 22 per cent re­spec­tively.

Women who do con­tinue on to a sci­ence-based ca­reer there­fore end up in a mi­nor­ity, mak­ing up just 23 per cent of peo­ple in core STEM oc­cu­pa­tions. Numbers are slowly ris­ing, which is en­cour­ag­ing, but here at BBC Fo­cus we wanted to un­der­stand more about what’s keep­ing young women from choos­ing STEM sub­jects and ca­reers, and why women have a tougher time reach­ing the top and stay­ing there. Here we talk to four women cur­rently work­ing in STEM about their ex­pe­ri­ences, the prob­lems faced by women and girls, and how we can fix the is­sues… 2

What inspired you to get into STEM?

Aoife: I was lucky, I had a fam­ily that was pro-maths. I al­ways just fol­lowed the thing that I loved, de­spite get­ting quite a low mark at A-level maths! I pur­sued it onto de­gree level, de­spite ad­vice from teach­ers say­ing I def­i­nitely shouldn’t do it.

Jess: I equally grew up among sci­en­tists. My par­ents are both med­i­cal doc­tors, and I think that I was al­ways fas­ci­nated by un­der­stand­ing the world around me a bit more. And I had re­ally, re­ally great teach­ing at school. And then I went to art school be­fore do­ing physics at univer­sity.

Suzie: I wasn’t great at sci­ence, ac­tu­ally. I wasn’t bad at it, but I wasn’t great at it for a long time when I was at school. But again, my par­ents are fairly sci­en­tific and I think that’s help­ful. I have a twin brother and he’s a neu­trino physi­cist, so fam­ily din­ner con­ver­sa­tions are fas­ci­nat­ing these days. And again, not be­ing bril­liant at it, if you work hard enough, you can get to where you want to go.

An­gela: Well, I’m not re­ally a sci­en­tist any more. I’m some­one on the other side, if you like. But I did study en­gi­neer­ing at univer­sity, and part of the rea­son I think I did that was be­cause my dad had been an engi­neer. In my culture, in In­dia, where my fam­ily are from and where I’ve lived, en­gi­neer­ing is a re­ally pres­ti­gious, high-val­ued thing to do. I never had this sense that I think a lot of other peo­ple in my school had that it was get­ting greasy and dirty and be­ing a me­chanic. For me, it was an ex­cit­ing route to un­der­stand­ing how things work. You know – tak­ing things apart and fix­ing them and build­ing new things. That was what I re­ally loved about read­ing en­gi­neer­ing. It was just mak­ing things all the time. So I miss that now, al­though I do make all the flat-pack fur­ni­ture at home and do all the DIY!

“Reach­ing out when they’ve cho­sen GCSEs or A-lev­els – it’s too late”

Re­search sug­gests that stu­dents are en­cour­aged to get great re­sults at A-level to get into

univer­sity, and peo­ple are maybe put off do­ing STEM sub­jects be­cause they think it’s go­ing to be re­ally hard to get high grades. Yet some of you say you didn’t nec­es­sar­ily get the top re­sults in sci­ence and maths sub­jects…

Suzie: Yes, I hear that all the time from stu­dents. So, ‘Oh, physics is re­ally hard,’ or they think that they’ll get As in other sub­jects and physics would be harder to achieve that. If that’s what’s putting peo­ple off, that’s such a shame. They’re miss­ing an op­por­tu­nity there.

Aoife: The per­cep­tion that it’s hard to do well in maths is some­thing that’s re­ally stub­born. Maths was the most pop­u­lar A-level in 2016, of all of the A-lev­els. For an av­er­age A-level, you’d ex­pect around 26 per cent of peo­ple to get As and A*s, but in maths it’s more like 60. But there’s still a stuck view that it’s dif­fi­cult, and that’s some­thing we all need to work to­gether to get over. You don’t need to be the top of your class to go on and work in STEM jobs. Of­ten we don’t look for the high­est grades – we look for log­i­cal, thought­ful, mo­ti­vated prob­lem-solvers.

Jess: Most par­ents es­pe­cially want their daugh­ters to be­come doc­tors or teach­ers, and as a re­sult, sub­jects like chem­istry, which is re­quired for univer­sity medicine, is com­pletely gen­der bal­anced at A-level. So if they made physics a re­quire­ment for univer­sity medicine, it would be com­pletely gen­der bal­anced at A-level overnight. There’s ev­i­dence that if you’ve got a physics A-level, you make a bet­ter first- and sec­ond-year ju­nior doc­tor.

Suzie: I think there’s also ev­i­dence that we need to look at a younger age. Reach­ing out to them when they’ve done their GCSEs and cho­sen their A-lev­els, it’s ac­tu­ally too late. They’ve made a de­ci­sion about them­selves: I’m not a sci­en­tist.

What can par­ents be do­ing to en­cour­age their boys or girls to look at STEM ca­reers? How soon can they start in­tro­duc­ing those ideas to their chil­dren?

An­gela: I think mak­ing things, build­ing things, do­ing ex­per­i­ments at home… these are easy things that can be done, and they re­ally are the linch­pin of not just gen­er­at­ing an in­ter­est in a young child in that sub­ject. And with things like cod­ing: it’s use­ful to un­der­stand the logic of how to code. It’s so sim­ple. A five-year-old can do it. There’s no rea­son why that kind of thing can’t be done at home.

Jess: Pro­gram­ming you can do at home. There’s Hour of Code on­line, where you can do chal­lenges all the time, but there are so many teach­ing re­sources on the BBC web­site and else­where, so you can do all of that for free. And the maker move­ment is re­ally well es­tab­lished now across the UK. This idea that you can rock up to a Maker Space – look for one near you – and they’ll teach you at an age level that’s ap­pro­pri­ate for who you are, skills to tinker and to play, whether it’s with Lego, wood­work or met­al­work.

An­gela: We have loads of re­search now that shows that if you en­cour­age chil­dren in cer­tain ar­eas of play, that helps to de­velop their 2

2 brains and skills in that di­rec­tion. One of the rea­sons that we have the gen­der stereo­types we do is be­cause girls are given a cer­tain set of toys, boys are given a cer­tain set of toys, and they do ac­tu­ally de­velop along those [gen­dered] lines be­cause of that so­cial in­put.

“The boys don’t face the dis­crim­i­na­tion, the bar­ri­ers or the sex­ism that girls do”

With sub­jects like medicine, there seems to be a good gen­der bal­ance, whereas in en­gi­neer­ing, physics and space, women and men aren’t equal in numbers. Some fig­ures sug­gest it’s go­ing to be 250 years be­fore physics is bal­anced male to fe­male…

Jess: I think it’s 250 years for physics pa­pers to be bal­anced, so for the num­ber of ci­ta­tions for men and women to be equal on pa­pers. It’s not 250 years for it to be gen­der-bal­anced. That will prob­a­bly take even longer.

An­gela: But that’s ex­trap­o­lat­ing from the data that we have now. Things could change. I mean, 300 years ago, if you’d said women would have the vote by the end of this cen­tury, and in the same cen­tury be work­ing along­side men do­ing ev­ery­thing they do, you would never imag­ine that. So­ci­ety doesn’t work the way we sta­tis­ti­cally ex­pect it to.

Jess: I think even in things like medicine and ge­net­ics, though, that’s true early on in your ca­reer. There aren’t many women pro­fes­sors in medicine. You don’t have as many se­nior con­sul­tants in hos­pi­tals. It’s the same is­sues, the struc­tural ones. And they’re the kind of big, struc­tural changes we need to make within the sci­en­tific com­mu­nity to keep women there.

Could these is­sues be re­lated to child­care?

An­gela: Yes, I think that’s an enor­mous is­sue. And cer­tainly I struc­tured my ca­reer around the ex­pec­ta­tion that I would be tak­ing the lion’s share of the child­care when I had my son, which is ex­actly what hap­pened. I’ve turned down re­ally good op­por­tu­ni­ties be­cause of the child­care sit­u­a­tion. And it’s not just child­care, we kind of rel­e­gate ev­ery­thing out­side work be­cause we think it doesn’t mat­ter. It does mat­ter. There are lots of ac­com­plished pro­fes­sional women who give up work or who go part-time be­cause they want their chil­dren to have a par­ent at home. They want to be part of their chil­dren’s lives, and they want their child to have some­one. Gen­er­ally, even though we have pa­ter­nity leave now, men aren’t tak­ing on that role. And of­ten, it’s be­cause they don’t want their ca­reers to take a hit. So it’s the same fear that we have; it’s just that they’re less likely to do it.

Suzie: And I think there’s also a time is­sue here in the sense that when you’re in your 30s, that’s a re­ally big mo­ment in your sci­en­tific ca­reer. You’ve got your PhD, you’ve been a post-doc for a few years, you’re ap­ply­ing for fel­low­ships, and

then you’re go­ing for that per­ma­nent job. That’s a re­ally crit­i­cal mo­ment. And so, pos­si­bly, if you then go part-time, it’s per­ceived neg­a­tively when you’re go­ing for that big step. I think at­ti­tudes are chang­ing, ac­tu­ally, and I think we need to im­prove things like flex­i­ble work­ing and job-sharing. I’m not so spe­cial that I can’t share my job with some­one else!

Do you think women tend to suf­fer more from a lack of con­fi­dence or put too much pres­sure on them­selves in school and univer­sity?

An­gela: When I was at school, in my chem­istry class, there were eight of us, and I was the only woman. I got the high­est grades, and there were a lot of boys in that class well be­low av­er­age. It never both­ered them that their achieve­ments and aca­demic lev­els were be­low stan­dard. It re­ally both­ered the girls. When you know you’re go­ing into an in­dus­try where you’re al­ready go­ing to face chal­lenges be­cause you’re in a mi­nor­ity, where ev­ery stereo­type mes­sage tells you that things will be re­ally hard for you, you think, ‘Well then I have to be bril­liant in or­der to be able to do that. Be­cause things are go­ing to be hard enough for me any­way.’

The boys don’t face the dis­crim­i­na­tion or the bar­ri­ers or the sex­ism that the women do, and the girls know that. I felt I needed to be bet­ter than ev­ery­body else to do en­gi­neer­ing – a de­gree which is so easy to get into in this coun­try. You don’t need to be bril­liant to do it, but I felt that you did, be­cause I was a mi­nor­ity.

Aoife: Ab­so­lutely. Cer­tainly in maths, girls un­der­es­ti­mate them­selves, so like-for-like abil­ity, girls and boys will rate them­selves at dif­fer­ent lev­els from about the age of 10, and it goes down from there. So you have this sit­u­a­tion where you could have the same grade, you could both have an A or a B at the end of your GCSEs, and be look­ing at A-lev­els, and the girl is more likely to think that grade is not good enough for that step. And the con­fi­dence in your abil­ity is a big pre­dic­tor of whether or not peo­ple will go on and do that sub­ject. We are los­ing out on some amaz­ing tal­ent by not hav­ing enough women go­ing through the sys­tem into these jobs. We are go­ing to need 1.8 mil­lion en­gi­neers by 2025, so we need to make sure we are widen­ing the net.

An­gela: But I think we un­der­es­ti­mate the ex­tent of dis­crim­i­na­tion within the in­dus­tries them­selves. En­gi­neer­ing has been a very sex­ist in­dus­try for a long time. I still meet women who tell me that they, against all ad­vice, went and got their physics or en­gi­neer­ing de­gree, and when they ap­plied for jobs, even though they did just as well as ev­ery­one else, the boys got more call backs. So you do have to be bet­ter. We’re told that you have to be bet­ter. We know that. And it’s not the girls’ fault for be­ing un­der­con­fi­dent, it’s the in­dus­try’s fault for not giv­ing them the jobs at equal rates to men.

Suzie: But I think talk­ing about per­cep­tions, it’s also one of those things where stu­dents have his­tor­i­cally looked at a physi­cist and 2

2 seen mid­dle-aged white men, and that’s the per­cep­tion of what a physi­cist is. Of­ten they’re en­thu­si­as­tic about physics, and I’ll say, ‘Oh, are you go­ing to study physics? You sound like you re­ally like it,’ and they say, ‘Oh, no, I can’t.’ So I think it’s for all of us to stand there and say, ‘Well ac­tu­ally, we have, and you’re just like us, so there’s no rea­son that you shouldn’t do that.’

Some­thing re­ally nice that the In­sti­tute of Physics did was get­ting 14- or 15-year-olds, so just-de­cid­ing-GCSE age, to go into pri­mary schools to be am­bas­sadors for their sub­ject. Be­cause when you’re study­ing these things, then if you go and tell kids about it, you’re the boss, right? You know way more than them, so you get re­ally em­pow­ered on your own con­fi­dence. They get to find out about physics, which they’ve never re­ally found out about be­fore. It inspired both sides. It got those peo­ple to stay on and keep physics for A-level.

Jess, you’ve re­cently been in the news be­cause you started writ­ing up Wikipedia pages for fe­male sci­en­tists. What inspired you to do that in the first place?

Wikipedia is this in­cred­i­ble ed­u­ca­tional plat­form. It’s the fifth most ac­cessed web­site in the world, and while peo­ple are crit­i­cal about the level of ref­er­enc­ing, and there are ru­mours that teach­ers say you shouldn’t use it in schools, it’s ac­tu­ally a phe­nom­e­nally good source for putting to­gether dif­fer­ent points of view, and the ci­ta­tions are re­ally strict. But on English­s­peak­ing Wikipedia, only 17 per cent of the bi­ogra­phies are about women. So it’s in­cred­i­bly bi­ased by the peo­ple who cre­ate the con­tent. About 8 to 16 per cent of edi­tors are women.

So ba­si­cally, men are edit­ing Wikipedia, and writ­ing con­tent that they’re in­ter­ested in or fa­mil­iar with. Women are un­der­rep­re­sented in sci­ence and en­gi­neer­ing any­way, and so are peo­ple of colour and LGBTQ+ sci­en­tists. I want it to be a neu­tral plat­form. And I think ob­vi­ously that’s go­ing to take a lot more than just me edit­ing it, but I de­cided at the be­gin­ning of this year that if I met awe­some women or came across them on the in­ter­net, or awe­some peo­ple of colour, I would start to make their Wikipedia pages. Then you start to look them up and learn about them and their story, and they’re so in­spir­ing.

There have been sto­ries re­cently about women who’ve had some nasty ex­pe­ri­ences – whether at un­der­grad­u­ate or PhD level – where they’ve been sex­u­ally ha­rassed by su­per­vi­sors or lec­tur­ers. Do you think this is par­tic­u­larly a prob­lem in STEM?

Jess: I think it prob­a­bly is, his­tor­i­cally, a big­ger prob­lem in sub­jects where men have dom­i­nated se­nior po­si­tions. So all these sto­ries that are com­ing out about sex­ual harassment and bul­ly­ing are in in­dus­tries where men are at the top: in the film in­dus­try, in academia, in sub­jects like physics and en­gi­neer­ing, where men are largely in po­si­tions of power. You have laws and rules in univer­si­ties that are in­cred­i­bly dated, that are hun­dreds of years old. There’s noth­ing trans­par­ent about re­port­ing the way that some­one be­haves. There’s noth­ing clear about what will hap­pen to that per­son if you tell them off. And I think that that’s com­ing to a head now. Lots of these sto­ries have come out in as­tro­physics, and that’s be­cause women are start­ing to get to about 30 per cent, and this is the kind of nom­i­nal per­cent­age where things start to change. There’s kind of a cul­tural shift, and the women start speak­ing up.

An­gela: There have been some re­ally high-pro­file as­tro­physics sex­ual harassment cases. And the ques­tion is, ‘Why now?’ Part of it is the #MeToo Move­ment, and women feel­ing braver to speak out. But it’s also be­cause they have each other. And they didn’t al­ways have each other.

I think one of the rea­sons it’s worse in STEM, and par­tic­u­larly in lab re­search, is be­cause this is a small, closed at­mos­phere, an en­vi­ron­ment where some­times there’ll just be a few peo­ple. You may be alone with your su­per­vi­sor quite of­ten, and there’s noth­ing you can do about it. This per­son will be older, you’ll gen­er­ally be very ju­nior, and your en­tire ca­reer can de­pend on them. It’s no dif­fer­ent from a Hol­ly­wood cast­ing room in that sense. It’s an en­vi­ron­ment ripe for abuse, re­ally.

Jess: There’s an Athena Swan award that UK univer­si­ties can com­pete for. It’s kind of a gen­der equal­ity kitemark. A bunch of se­nior fe­male aca­demics got to­gether and said, “We’re go­ing to make an award scheme where grant money will de­pend on your abil­ity to get one of these awards, and you’ll get bronze, sil­ver or gold de­pend­ing on your com­mit­ment to im­prov­ing the sci­en­tific com­mu­nity for ev­ery­one work­ing there. For un­der­grad­u­ates, post­grads, pro­fes­sors, ev­ery­one.” Whether you’re a woman, or a per­son of colour, or an LGBTQ+ sci­en­tist, all of these add up, and this makes you much more vul­ner­a­ble to these po­si­tions of power. We go on and on about sci­ence’s lack of women, but it’s be­cause they’re leav­ing. Whether it’s a huge sex­ual harassment case, or it’s some­thing re­ally big that’s hap­pened, or it’s just these con­stant knocks to you be­cause of your gen­der.

“We go on about sci­ence’s lack of women, but it’s be­cause they’re leav­ing”

But these things don’t change overnight. And you know, bring­ing in a pol­icy now is re­ally help­ful. But we have to recog­nise that it takes years of work to change this kind of thing. It doesn’t just change in a heart­beat. Alice Lipscombe-South­well is the pro­duc­tion editor at BBC Fo­cus.

DIS­COVER MORE You can read the full unedited in­ter­view, watch the video, or lis­ten to the pod­cast at sci­ence­fo­ We’ll be fol­low­ing up on this in a fu­ture is­sue of BBC Fo­cus – look out for it.

AS­SO­CIATE PRO­FES­SOR OF PLAN­E­TARY SCI­ENCE AT THE UNIVER­SITY OF LE­ICES­TER. LAST YEAR SHE WON THE BBC TWO SE­RIES AS­TRO­NAUTS: DO YOU HAVE WHAT? IT TAKES??ABOVE: After win­ning As­tro­nauts: Do You Have What ItTakes? Suzie is keen to ap­ply to ESA in fu­ture to be­come a real-life as­tro­naut @ Suzie Im­ber Space DR SUZIE IM­BER

@An­ge­laDSaini AWARD-WIN­NING . SCI­ENCE JOUR­NAL­IST . WHO WROTE . IN­FE­RIOR: HOW . SCI­ENCE GOT . WOMEN WRONG.BE­LOW: An­gela’s book In­fe­rior uses hard facts, re­search and ev­i­dence to dis­pel myths about gen­der that are per­pet­u­ated to this day AN­GELI SAINI

AS­SO­CIATE DI­REC­TOR AND MATH­E­MA­TI­CIAN AT MOVE­MENT STRATE­GIES, WHICHIS A COM­PANY THAT SPE­CIALISESIN CROWD FLOW PLAN­NING. OIFE H @Aoife_HuntBE­LOW: Aoife will be pre­sent­ing a BBC doc­u­men­tary about the maths of crowd flow later this year, and is also ap­pear­ing at Maths Fest 2019

ABOVE: Just be­fore we in­ter­viewed Jess, she’d launched a fundrais­ing cam­paign to get a copy of An­gela’sIn­fe­rior into ev­ery sec­ondary school in the UK. In just 12 days she achieved her goal @jess­wade PHYSI­CIST AT IM­PE­RIAL COL­LEGE LONDON. THIS YEAR SHE WON THE DAPHNE JACK­SON PRIZE FROM THE IN­STI­TUTE OF PHYSICS.

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