Blog: Girls Do Science Too!

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.

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The reason this post has been sparked is I did an outreach event today. I went in to a primary school and I was doing experiments with year 3 pupils (7/8 years old). There were so many girls who were excited about science, they were enthusiastic and creative, they had all the makings of what could well be one day an amazing scientist – but she said the most heartbreaking words to me “I really want to be a scientist… but my mum says that’s for boys and I should be a teacher”. No. Just no. No parent should ever say that to their child. Anyone can do anything they put their mind to. As long as there is aptitude, determination and passion, it is achievable.

Some of the greatest scientists have been women; Marie Curie was the first person and the only woman to have ever won the Nobel Prize twice, she is the only person to have won in two different disciplines (physics and chemistry). Lise Meitner was a physicist who was instrumental in discovering nuclear fission, Otto Hahn won the Nobel Prize for the breakthrough that she made – this is often cited as the most glaring examples of a woman’s contribution being overlooked by the Nobel committee; she does at least have an element named after her, but it hardly makes up for the glaring issues that happened in the past. Rosalind Franklin was an x-ray crystallographer who made the breakthrough in the structure of a DNA double helix; apparently her research was shown to Watson and Crick without her permission, they utilised the data and eventually it was published after she died – though she made the breakthrough, she was never formally recognised by the Nobel committee as you cannot receive it posthumously; Watson and Crick both acknowledge her at least! Dorothy Hodgkin isolated vitamin B12, she discovered the structure of insulin and it’s biological importance; she’s also notable because she was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis at 24, she faced both sexism and social inequality but carried on nonetheless! She won a Nobel Prize for her research in to insulin, she also taught Margaret Thatcher (who is also a notable chemist, it has to be said!) And finally, an honourable mention to Ida Freund who was a big influence in the teaching of science to girls, she was a supporter of suffrage in the early 1900s and is one of the reasons women are now able to join the Royal Society and actually be recognised as scientists; also she is cited as being the first woman to bake periodic table cupcakes!

Basically, if you goggle “female scientists” and you’ll find that there are many of them who have done wonderful things that you will probably attribute to a man. Everyone has heard of Marie Curie, but truthfully we don’t often get taught about her. We hear about Einstein and Newton when we’re younger, then as you approach GCSE and A Level it’s still all men – Bohr, Rutherford, Watson and Crick… Noone hears about the women above unless they actually actively go looking for them and that’s where the problem is. Girls should be taught about these amazing women alongside Newton and Einstein because they did amazing things too; they’ve put their name to just as many papers, are just as good with maths, they’ve just always had to do something so much more to actually break through the big, sexist wall and be recognised.

Organisations are trying to change this. Athena SWAN has a government charter in place to ensure gender equality in STEMM subjects (science, technology, engineering, maths & medicine). At UEA, biology, environmental sciences, nursing, medicine and pharmacy all hold an Athena SWAN award (bronze) and the university as a whole also holds one at bronze level. This is a start but it just isn’t good enough at all. The charter is worth a read (here) as it’s trying to tackle a lot of things that I have mentioned above. There is also WISE (women in to science and engineering), which has Princess Anne as a patron, and their mission is simple; they want to increase the gender balance in STEM in the UK from 13% female as it is at present to 30% by the end of the decade. They’re working from the ground up, they’re working with young kids and with seasoned scientists and it is definitely a campaign worth looking at (here).

This is something I’m passionate about, it’s something that I’m really starting to notice and I know I can’t change it on my own but it’s something I’m working with people to do. Next year we’re going to try and organise Women in Science events for the undergraduates, to show them that they can do it and give them other options opposed to teaching or research. It’s not much, but it is a start and quite frankly, I don’t think that it should be a student run society DOING this, it should be the faculty doing it.

Gender inequality in education is actually a thing, I’ve previously done a post about the inequality in the English literature syllabus and this is essentially no different. The lack of women we are taught about is shocking!

I’d be quite interested to hear if anyone has done the “women in science” sort of thing, or if you’re a chemistry/science student and have experienced this sort of inequality or lack of diversity. It’d be really interesting to actually see if it’s something that is common everywhere or if it’s just my university!

I’m finally very sorry that this went on a while, congratulations if you read it all and thank you!

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