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.

Voices
voices
News
general electionThis quiz matches undecided voters with the best party for them
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Matthew Macfadyen starred in the big screen adaptation of Austen's novel in 2005
tvStar says studios are forcing actors to get buff for period roles
News
Prince William and his wife Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge show their newly-born daughter, their second child, to the media outside the Lindo Wing at St Mary's Hospital in central London, on 2 May 2015.
news
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Student

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + OTE £45K: SThree: At SThree, we like to be differe...

Guru Careers: Graduate Account Executive / Digital Account Executive

£20k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Graduate Digital Account Exec ...

SThree: Graduate Recruitment Resourcer

£20000 - £22500 per annum + OTE £30K: SThree: SThree Group have been well esta...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £23000 per annum + OTE £45K: SThree: At SThree, we like to be differe...

Independent Dating
and  

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

Day In a Page

Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living
Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

Homeless people keep mobile phones

A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before