Why aren't there more women in science - and how can we change that?

Last Friday, 12 female scientists gathered on London's South Bank to celebrate women in science. Rose Troup Buchanan went along to talk genomes, nanotechnology and dead scientists

I'm surrounded by teenage girls. They're shrieking, bouncing and making high-pitched expressions of excitement about what they've just seen. Nope, I'm not cowering outside the latest One Direction gig, but standing by the Thames, as a woman in a lab coat discusses species migration.

Last Friday, Soapbox Science made its third appearance in London. For Dr Seirian Sumner and Dr Nathalie Pettorelli, who created and ran the very first event three years ago, it's about 'making the right women visible and accessible'.

Soapbox Science brings together 12 female scientists, across all sorts of disciplines and positions, in order to promote gender equality in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and maths). Seirian and Nathalie wanted to bring science to the public, one small group at a time, dispelling notions of disaffection and highlighting female achievement within STEM. Each of the 12 women spoke for an hour, standing on a box, to anyone willing to lend an ear along the Southbank of the Thames.

Their voices form a minority; female professors make only eight per cent of all professors in STEM research, and just 13 per cent within the workforce. The numbers are part of a national trend that sees women significantly under-represented in the higher reaches of science. Yet, from a young age, girls are taking up and studying science, and, as recent evidence indicates, outperforming boys.

Getting girls involved earlier is not a problem for science. Alex, 18, and her friend Daphne, 17, are both studying Maths, and Biology and Chemistry respectively, at school, but although they were planning to go on to study at university, they weren't sure about working in science afterwards. It’s a concern that Seirian and Nathalie reiterated: the female scientists who literally ‘drop off’ after undergraduate degrees. It is a disquiet echoed across the country: the government recently launched an inquiry into what is known as the 'leaky drainpipe' which sees women silently disappear as you climb the 'upturned pyramid'.

'You just don't hear about them'

So what is the problem? According to Natalie, 'you don't hear about female scientists'. Seirian continues: "Off the top of your head you probably wouldn't be able to name a single female scientist - who is still alive, and who isn't Marie Curie. But, you'd definitely be able to give me a list of five or so male scientists working today. It's a lack of visibility and a lack of the right kind of role models for women to reach towards."

Says Nathalie: "Just look at all the women here – they are not dead, they are fun!"

Between the two of them, they are striving to make women's presence in science seen and heard. With each year gone by the event has gone from strength to strength, and they spoke of their desire to expand it nationally. This year they received over 70 applicants for their 12 soapboxes, but the venture remains personal; as Nathalie enthusiastically admits, they do all their own tweets. Despite this, they have the significant backing of the L'Oreal-UNESCO's Women in Science program, an organisation which has championed women's rights in science, creating in 1998 the first international prize for women in science.

Each of the 12 women chosen from the 70 brings to her soapbox something a little different. The speakers' topics ranged from the invasion of computers into our daily lives, to an analysis of specie migration, to green nanotechnology. Standing on top of their boxes, interacting, exchanging, and amusing their audiences, it was only the white lab coats that gave the game away. Dr Emily Cross managed to get a Macarena going on while she explained the complexities of our brains' ability to learn and perceive complex movements like dancing, meanwhile Dr Zoe Schnapp explained superconducting seaweed with the help of a few - very messy - props.

Coming off her soapbox, Emily added her voice to the call for role models to have more of a presence and a degree of visibility that just doesn't exists now.

"I think what we see is that like promotes like," Emily says. In her field of psychology the majority of undergraduates were predominantly female, yet the upper echelons of psychology departments were frequently dominated by men.

"People don't explicitly think women shouldn't be good at science, but there are implicit attitudes, and there's still a male stereotype in a lot of science."

The Matilda Effect

Her words reflect the phenomenon coined in 1993 called the Matilda Effect, whereby a woman's achievement in science is frequently overlooked for a male colleague. To put the Matilda Effect into perceptive, consider the Nobel Prize. Nobels for Economic Science, Chemistry, Physics, or Medicine has created 630 Nobel Laureates between 1901 and 2012. It’s been awarded to a woman only 17 times - and Marie Curie got it twice.

Professor Laura Piddock, who spoke about antibiotic resistance, thinks this just one of the reasons why it’s so important for young women to see other women leading and achieving within science. "We have to encourage women to stay in science, we need to encourage men to stay in science, but we need a lot of scientists: we need men and women."

It’s why the organisers are set on their format. Placing these women on a soapbox doesn’t distance them from the crowd and the public; it just reinforces their scientific everyday approach to life. As Nathalie points out; “You only ever hear about the really extraordinary ones.”

“You don’t hear about the others," adds Seiran. "We’re all extremely easy-going!”

Easy-going they might be, but they’ve also got to be tough. Many of the women speaking on Friday have juggled a full family life alongside their careers, and although they emphasised the need for visible role models, there were also calls for better childcare provisions and equal maternal and paternal leave. Hopefully, in the coming years initiatives like Soapbox Science will see these voices grow, and their concerns addressed. By the time those enthusiastic girls clamouring about science become STEM undergraduates, perhaps they won’t get lost in the ‘leaky drainpipe’ that sees so many scientific women disappear.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Susan Sarandon described David Bowie as
peopleSusan Sarandon reveals more on her David Bowie romance
Lewis Hamilton walks back to the pit lane with his Mercedes burning in the background
Formula 1
Arts and Entertainment
The new characters were announced yesterday at San Diego Comic Con
comic-con 2014
Arsenal supporters gather for a recent ‘fan party’ in New Jersey
Arts and Entertainment
No Devotion's Geoff Rickly and Stuart Richardson
musicReview: No Devotion, O2 Academy Islington, London
sportDidier Drogba returns to Chelsea on one-year deal
Arts and Entertainment
The Secret Cinema performance of Back to the Future has been cancelled again
newsComedy club forced to apologise as maggots eating a dead pigeon fall out of air-conditioning
Life and Style
Balmain's autumn/winter 2014 campaign, shot by Mario Sorrenti and featuring Binx Walton, Cara Delevingne, Jourdan Dunn, Ysaunny Brito, Issa Lish and Kayla Scott
fashionHow Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film
filmFifty Shades of Grey trailer provokes moral outrage in US
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Student

Learning Support Assistant

£50 per day: Randstad Education Manchester Secondary: Experienced Learning Sup...


£100 - £120 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: Are you a flexible inspira...

Graduate Accountant - Banking - Bristol - £140pd

£100 - £140 per day + competitive: Orgtel: Graduate Accountant - Banking - Bri...

Trainee Recruitment Consultants - Banking & Finance

£20000 - £25000 per annum + OTE £40,000: SThree: SThree Group have been well e...

Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Day In a Page

Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business, from Sarah Millican to Marcus Brigstocke

Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business

For all those wanting to know how stand-ups keep standing, here are some of the best moments
Jokes on Hollywood: 'With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on'

Jokes on Hollywood

With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
Edinburgh Fringe 2014: The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee

Edinburgh Fringe 2014

The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee
Evan Davis: The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing to take over at Newsnight

The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing

What will Evan Davis be like on Newsnight?
Finding the names for America’s shame: What happens to the immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert?

Finding the names for America’s shame

The immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert
Inside a church for Born Again Christians: Speaking to God in a Manchester multiplex

Inside a church for Born Again Christians

As Britain's Anglican church struggles to establish its modern identity, one branch of Christianity is booming
Rihanna, Kim Kardashian and me: How Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

Parisian couturier Pierre Balmain made his name dressing the mid-century jet set. Today, Olivier Rousteing – heir to the house Pierre built – is celebrating their 21st-century equivalents. The result? Nothing short of Balmania
Cancer, cardiac arrest, HIV and homelessness - and he's only 39

Incredible survival story of David Tovey

Tovey went from cooking for the Queen to rifling through bins for his supper. His is a startling story of endurance against the odds – and of a social safety net failing at every turn
Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride