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

Rose Troup Buchanan
Tuesday 09 July 2013 11:10 BST
One of the scientists climbs off her soapbox to give a demonstration
One of the scientists climbs off her soapbox to give a demonstration

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.

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