Recently I’ve been rather overwhelmed by the lack of female role models I have as a science student. In the chemistry department there are 5 female members of faculty, only one of which is a professor. There are more men with the initial J than there are women; these women are amazing, there just isn’t enough of them! It does seem that as a woman who is a scientist we have to work harder in what is considered a “man’s world” to get the equal recognition, we have to fight harder to be even seen, sexist jokes are common in the labs and, eventually, it comes down to a point that we have to choose – do we want a family or a PhD?
To do both as a female is hard; especially as a chemist. Working with chemicals can impact on fertility before you even try for kids, when you’re pregnant being in the lab is generally a no, then you take some time out to be a mother to a newborn and by the time you come back you’ve been out of the loop so long it’s hard to catch up. Recently in Chemistry World there was an article about women who have done this, but that’s only with a supportive institute and family behind you. This is generally a rarity as when it comes down to it, research is what brings institutions money whether they’re universities or companies like GSK or AstraZeneca.
From a young age girls are often told that science is for boys. They’re told that they should focus their energies on subjects like English and more ‘creative pursuits’ – this doesn’t come from schools generally, but sometimes from (somewhat antiquated in my opinion) parents or grandparents who think that girls should just ‘stick to the ‘soft’ subjects’. Recently LEGO announced that their Ideas Research Institute range, which was female characters in scientific settings, was limited edition. In saying that it was limited edition with female characters and continuing the range with male characters, they’re saying that females in science are a rarity. Kids notice these things and having female figures in something as simple as a LEGO set is a big thing, it gives a girl who likes science the chance to reach out and engage. Kids love paying pretend, they love playing houses and “mummies and daddies” – they enact their idea of a future through make believe and society is constantly putting pressure on young girls, giving the impression that being a scientist isn’t normal, it isn’t something they should even try to consider. It doesn’t stop them, but it does discourage them, simply because no-one – male, female or anywhere on the spectrum – want’s to be considered as an outcast at any time, never mind when they’re that young.