In 2016, only 25% of the STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) graduates in the UK were female. Throughout history women's contributions have been limited by their exclusion from most formal scientific education entities. I have chosen to write this article because I am very passionate about the subject of getting more women into historically male-dominated scientific fields. I am currently studying physics at Sheffield Hallam University, and am part of a noticeable female minority on the course. Although I don’t feel intimidated by this environment, there must be a reason that there are so few women in this field.
Another personal incentive for me to raise awareness on this issue is that my idol Vera Rubin died in 2016. It was a year when the deaths of many famous people were reported widely in the media, but I saw barely any mention of the passing of Vera Rubin. Possibly this was because she wasn’t a celebrity, or perhaps because her work in science wasn’t considered as noteworthy as having released an album or being in a movie, which is another issue in and of itself. This lack of recognition of her passing just seems so fundamentally wrong, as the research she carried out led to the current theories surrounding dark matter and the chemical makeup of our universe. And, as citizens of this universe, shouldn’t we care?
Recently a major blockbuster movie was released called Hidden Figures, displaying the prejudice against women working at NASA who were instrumental in helping calculate the moon landing. I feel like this really helped highlight the issue to a wider population. So I want to use this article as a platform to discuss some of the women that have played a major role in scientific developments and why it is so important that we encourage people of all genders to pursue their dream job.
What women have there been in science?
Although universities were initially established in the 11th century, it was not until the 1700s that Laura Bassi became the first female professor. The late 19th century saw rise of higher education available to women, including the establishment of the renowned Cheltenham Ladies College in the UK. Despite the limitations to formal female education, there have been many influential women in science throughout history, here are just a few:
Why do we need more women in science?
It’s not so much particularly that we need more people in science, the issue is that gender roles are stereotyped, and that not all young girls are being encouraged to pursue their dream jobs. This is the same cause for there being fewer male nurses, and it’s just wrong as every person should be able to pursue their dream job. It’s easily possible that young people aren’t given enough encouragement to follow their passions, but it’s also possible that many people aren’t presented with the opportunities in the first place.
A lot of the historic reasons for women not pursuing such careers were due to the preconception that they would be unable to work a job and look after children at the same time. Nowadays this has been made less relevant because of childcare being made available to more people. However, there are still sometimes judgements passed on women who choose careers over having children or pressures imposed upon women in professional careers to not have children at all. The brilliant Marie Curie is quoted to have said: “I have frequently been questioned, especially by women, of how I could reconcile family life with a scientific career. Well, it has not been easy.”
How can we encourage more women into science?
Young girls are typically encouraged towards traditionally feminine roles according to tradition, with statements made throughout life suggesting that women should be intimidated by the typically male-dominated field of science. WISE is a campaign for gender balance in STEM that enables people in business, industry and education to increase the participation, contribution and success of women in the field. They aim to influence society from an educational level to the level of the boardroom in industry; it is organisations like these that we must get behind to encourage gender-equality within science. However, encouraging women to pursue their scientific interests starts at home and in schools at an early age. If children are told they can, then they are that much closer to trying.
At my university I am part of the physics society and I would love to go with the physics society into different schools to encourage young people into science. I think it would be great for them to see that I, as a non-stereotypical or not “nerdy looking” person am studying the nerdiest of subjects.
To finish with a quote from QuynhGiao Nguyen, a materials scientist at NASA: “If this is really the passion you want to pursue then pursue it without limitation or hesitation. Put your heart and soul into it and break the stereotype.” (June 2016, Media Planet) So, let’s unite, and using our hearts and souls together we can do something BIG.
Rhian studies physics in Sheffield, United Kingdom and grew up on a dairy farm in the rolling hills of North Wales. She loves everything science and outdoors related.