Back in the 19th Century, Ada Lovelace carried out pioneering computing work on the Analytical Engine with Charles Babbage, at a time when few women were schooled in maths and sciences. Ada Lovelace Day falls on 9 October this year: its aim is to increase the profile of women in these careers and inspire the next generation of scientists, engineers and mathematicians. This is important, because there are around 40,000 skilled STEM jobs left vacant each year in the UK.
The UK’s growing science, engineering and technology industries are crying out for people with STEM A-levels, yet students appear to not be selecting these subjects. This is particularly marked among girls, with just 19 per cent choosing two STEM subjects at A-level compared to 33 per cent of boys. According to the campaigning body Women into Science and Engineering (WISE), computing, further maths and physics at A-level have particularly low proportions of female entrants, at 10, 28 and 22 per cent respectively.
The boys don’t face the discrimination, the barriers or the sexism that girls do
Women who do continue on to a science-based career therefore end up in a minority, making up just 23 per cent of people in core STEM occupations. Numbers are slowly rising, which is encouraging, but here at BBC Focus we wanted to understand more about what’s keeping young women from choosing STEM subjects and careers, and why women have a tougher time reaching the top and staying there. In this special edition Science Focus Podcast we talk to four women currently working in STEM about their experiences, the problems faced by women and girls, and how we can fix the issues. You can also watch the complete interview and read the transcript below.
Dr Suzie Imber – Associate professor of planetary science at the University of Leicester. Last year she won the BBC Two series Astronauts: Do You Have What It Takes?
Angela Saini – Award-winning science journalist who wrote Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong.
Dr Aoife Hunt – Associate director and mathematician at Movement Strategies, which is a company that specialises in crowd flow planning.
Dr Jess Wade – Physicist at Imperial College London. This year she won the Daphne Jackson prize from the Institute of Physics.
Did you enjoy this podcast? If you liked what you heard, then why not subscribe and leave us a review? You can find us on iTunes, Acast, Stitcher, and many of your favourite podcast apps.
What inspired you to get into STEM?
Aoife: I was lucky, I had a family that was pro-maths. I always just followed the thing that I loved, despite getting quite a low mark at A-level maths! I pursued it onto degree level, despite advice from teachers saying I definitely shouldn’t do it.
Jess: I equally grew up among scientists. My parents are both medical doctors, and I think that I was always fascinated by understanding the world around me a bit more. And I had really, really great teaching at school. And then I went to art school before doing physics at university.
Suzie: I wasn’t great at science, actually. I wasn’t bad at it, but I wasn’t great at it for a long time when I was at school. But again, my parents are fairly scientific and I think that’s helpful. I have a twin brother and he’s a neutrino physicist, so family dinner conversations are fascinating these days. And again, not being brilliant at it, if you work hard enough, you can get to where you want to go.
Angela: Well, I’m not really a scientist any more. I’m someone on the other side, if you like. But I did study engineering at university, and part of the reason I think I did that was because my dad had been an engineer. In my culture, in India, where my family are from and where I’ve lived, engineering is a really prestigious, high-valued thing to do. I never had this sense that I think a lot of other people in my school had that it was getting greasy and dirty and being a mechanic. For me, it was an exciting route to understanding how things work. You know – taking things apart and fixing them and building new things. That was what I really loved about reading engineering. It was just making things all the time. So I miss that now, although I do make all the flat-pack furniture at home and do all the DIY!
After winning Astronauts: Do You Have What It Takes? Suzie is keen to apply to ESA in future to become a real-life astronaut.
Research suggests that students are encouraged to get great results at A-level to get into university, and people are maybe put off doing STEM subjects because they think it’s going to be really hard to get high grades. Yet some of you say you didn’t necessarily get the top results in science and maths subjects…
Suzie: Yes, I hear that all the time from students. So, ‘Oh, physics is really hard,’ or they think that they’ll get As in other subjects and physics would be harder to achieve that. If that’s what’s putting people off, that’s such a shame. They’re missing an opportunity there.
Reaching out when they’ve chosen GCSEs or A-levels – it’s too late
Aoife: The perception that it’s hard to do well in maths is something that’s really stubborn. Maths was the most popular A-level in 2016, of all of the A-levels. For an average A-level, you’d expect around 26 per cent of people to get As and A*s, but in maths it’s more like 60. But there’s still a stuck view that it’s difficult, and that’s something we all need to work together to get over. You don’t need to be the top of your class to go on and work in STEM jobs. Often we don’t look for the highest grades – we look for logical, thoughtful, motivated problem-solvers.
Jess: Most parents especially want their daughters to become doctors or teachers, and as a result, subjects like chemistry, which is required for university medicine, is completely gender balanced at A-level. So if they made physics a requirement for university medicine, it would be completely gender balanced at A-level overnight. There’s evidence that if you’ve got a physics A-level, you make a better first- and second-year junior doctor.
Suzie: I think there’s also evidence that we need to look at a younger age. Reaching out to them when they’ve done their GCSEs and chosen their A-levels, it’s actually too late. They’ve made a decision about themselves: I’m not a scientist.
What can parents be doing to encourage their boys or girls to look at STEM careers? How soon can they start introducing those ideas to their children?
Angela: I think making things, building things, doing experiments at home… these are easy things that can be done, and they really are the linchpin of not just generating an interest in a young child in that subject. And with things like coding: it’s useful to understand the logic of how to code. It’s so simple. A five-year-old can do it. There’s no reason why that kind of thing can’t be done at home.
Jess: Programming you can do at home. There’s Hour of Code online, where you can do challenges all the time, but there are so many teaching resources on the BBC website and elsewhere, so you can do all of that for free. And the maker movement is really well established now across the UK. This idea that you can rock up to a Maker Space – look for one near you – and they’ll teach you at an age level that’s appropriate for who you are, skills to tinker and to play, whether it’s with Lego, woodwork or metalwork.
Angela: We have loads of research now that shows that if you encourage children in certain areas of play, that helps to develop their brains and skills in that direction. One of the reasons that we have the gender stereotypes we do is because girls are given a certain set of toys, boys are given a certain set of toys, and they do actually develop along those [gendered] lines because of that social input.
With subjects like medicine, there seems to be a good gender balance, whereas in engineering, physics and space, women and men aren’t equal in numbers. Some figures suggest it’s going to be 250 years before physics is balanced male to female…
Jess: I think it’s 250 years for physics papers to be balanced, so for the number of citations for men and women to be equal on papers. It’s not 250 years for it to be gender-balanced. That will probably take even longer.
Angela: But that’s extrapolating from the data that we have now. Things could change. I mean, 300 years ago, if you’d said women would have the vote by the end of this century, and in the same century be working alongside men doing everything they do, you would never imagine that. Society doesn’t work the way we statistically expect it to.
Jess: I think even in things like medicine and genetics, though, that’s true early on in your career. There aren’t many women professors in medicine. You don’t have as many senior consultants in hospitals. It’s the same issues, the structural ones. And they’re the kind of big, structural changes we need to make within the scientific community to keep women there.
Angela’s book Inferior uses hard facts, research and evidence to dispel myths about gender that are perpetuated to this day
Could these issues be related to childcare?
Angela: Yes, I think that’s an enormous issue. And certainly I structured my career around the expectation that I would be taking the lion’s share of the childcare when I had my son, which is exactly what happened. I’ve turned down really good opportunities because of the childcare situation.
And it’s not just childcare, we kind of relegate everything outside work because we think it doesn’t matter. It does matter. There are lots of accomplished professional women who give up work or who go part-time because they want their children to have a parent at home. They want to be part of their children’s lives, and they want their child to have someone. Generally, even though we have paternity leave now, men aren’t taking on that role. And often, it’s because they don’t want their careers to take a hit. So it’s the same fear that we have; it’s just that they’re less likely to do it.
Suzie: And I think there’s also a time issue here in the sense that when you’re in your 30s, that’s a really big moment in your scientific career. You’ve got your PhD, you’ve been a post-doc for a few years, you’re applying for fellowships, and then you’re going for that permanent job. That’s a really critical moment. And so, possibly, if you then go part-time, it’s perceived negatively when you’re going for that big step. I think attitudes are changing, actually, and I think we need to improve things like flexible working and job-sharing. I’m not so special that I can’t share my job with someone else!
22% – The percentage of physics A-level exams taken by girls this year
1 in 5 – The number of girls who take two STEM subjects at A-level
5% – The percentage of registered engineers and technicians who are women
37% – The percentage of girls who took A-level maths after achieving A* or A at GCSE, compared to 51% of boys
80% of university vice chancellors in the UK are male
43% – The percentage of STEM A-levels awarded to girls this year
Do you think women tend to suffer more from a lack of confidence or put too much pressure on themselves in school and university?
Angela: When I was at school, in my chemistry class, there were eight of us, and I was the only woman. I got the highest grades, and there were a lot of boys in that class well below average. It never bothered them that their achievements and academic levels were below standard. It really bothered the girls. When you know you’re going into an industry where you’re already going to face challenges because you’re in a minority, where every stereotype message tells you that things will be really hard for you, you think, ‘Well then I have to be brilliant in order to be able to do that. Because things are going to be hard enough for me anyway.’
The boys don’t face the discrimination or the barriers or the sexism that the women do, and the girls know that. I felt I needed to be better than everybody else to do engineering – a degree which is so easy to get into in this country. You don’t need to be brilliant to do it, but I felt that you did, because I was a minority.
Aoife: Absolutely. Certainly in maths, girls underestimate themselves, so like-for-like ability, girls and boys will rate themselves at different levels from about the age of 10, and it goes down from there. So you have this situation where you could have the same grade, you could both have an A or a B at the end of your GCSEs, and be looking at A-levels, and the girl is more likely to think that grade is not good enough for that step. And the confidence in your ability is a big predictor of whether or not people will go on and do that subject. We are losing out on some amazing talent by not having enough women going through the system into these jobs. We are going to need 1.8 million engineers by 2025, so we need to make sure we are widening the net.
Angela: But I think we underestimate the extent of discrimination within the industries themselves. Engineering has been a very sexist industry for a long time. I still meet women who tell me that they, against all advice, went and got their physics or engineering degree, and when they applied for jobs, even though they did just as well as everyone else, the boys got more call backs. So you do have to be better. We’re told that you have to be better. We know that. And it’s not the girls’ fault for being underconfident, it’s the industry’s fault for not giving them the jobs at equal rates to men.
Suzie: But I think talking about perceptions, it’s also one of those things where students have historically looked at a physicist and seen middle-aged white men, and that’s the perception of what a physicist is. Often they’re enthusiastic about physics, and I’ll say, ‘Oh, are you going to study physics? You sound like you really like it,’ and they say, ‘Oh, no, I can’t.’ So I think it’s for all of us to stand there and say, ‘Well actually, we have, and you’re just like us, so there’s no reason that you shouldn’t do that.’
Jess: Something really nice that the Institute of Physics did was getting 14- or 15-year-olds, so just-deciding-GCSE age, to go into primary schools to be ambassadors for their subject. Because when you’re studying these things, then if you go and tell kids about it, you’re the boss, right? You know way more than them, so you get really empowered on your own confidence. They get to find out about physics, which they’ve never really found out about before. It inspired both sides. It got those people to stay on and keep physics for A-level.
Aoife will be presenting a BBC documentary about the maths of crowd flow later this year, and is also appearing at Maths Fest 2019
Jess, you’ve recently been in the news because you started writing up Wikipedia pages for female scientists. What inspired you to do that in the first place?
Jess: Wikipedia is this incredible educational platform. It’s the fifth most accessed website in the world, and while people are critical about the level of referencing, and there are rumours that teachers say you shouldn’t use it in schools, it’s actually a phenomenally good source for putting together different points of view, and the citations are really strict. But on English-speaking Wikipedia, only 17 per cent of the biographies are about women. So it’s incredibly biased by the people who create the content. About 8 to 16 per cent of editors are women.
So basically, men are editing Wikipedia, and writing content that they’re interested in or familiar with. Women are underrepresented in science and engineering anyway, and so are people of colour and LGBTQ+ scientists. I want it to be a neutral platform. And I think obviously that’s going to take a lot more than just me editing it, but I decided at the beginning of this year that if I met awesome women or came across them on the internet, or awesome people of colour, I would start to make their Wikipedia pages. Then you start to look them up and learn about them and their story, and they’re so inspiring.
There have been stories recently about women who’ve had some nasty experiences – whether at undergraduate or PhD level – where they’ve been sexually harassed by supervisors or lecturers. Do you think this is particularly a problem in STEM?
Jess: I think it probably is, historically, a bigger problem in subjects where men have dominated senior positions. So all these stories that are coming out about sexual harassment and bullying are in industries where men are at the top: in the film industry, in academia, in subjects like physics and engineering, where men are largely in positions of power.
You have laws and rules in universities that are incredibly dated, that are hundreds of years old. There’s nothing transparent about reporting the way that someone behaves. There’s nothing clear about what will happen to that person if you tell them off. And I think that that’s coming to a head now.
We go on about science’s lack of women, but it’s because they’re leaving
Lots of these stories have come out in astrophysics, and that’s because women are starting to get to about 30 per cent, and this is the kind of nominal percentage where things start to change. There’s kind of a cultural shift, and the women start speaking up.
Angela: There have been some really high-profile astrophysics sexual harassment cases. And the question is, ‘Why now?’ Part of it is the #MeToo Movement, and women feeling braver to speak out. But it’s also because they have each other. And they didn’t always have each other.
I think one of the reasons it’s worse in STEM, and particularly in lab research, is because this is a small, closed atmosphere, an environment where sometimes there’ll just be a few people. You may be alone with your supervisor quite often, and there’s nothing you can do about it. This person will be older, you’ll generally be very junior, and your entire career can depend on them. It’s no different from a Hollywood casting room in that sense. It’s an environment ripe for abuse, really.
Jess: There’s an Athena Swan award that UK universities can compete for. It’s kind of a gender equality kitemark. A bunch of senior female academics got together and said, “We’re going to make an award scheme where grant money will depend on your ability to get one of these awards, and you’ll get bronze, silver or gold depending on your commitment to improving the scientific community for everyone working there. For undergraduates, postgrads, professors, everyone.”
Whether you’re a woman, or a person of colour, or an LGBTQ+ scientist, all of these add up, and this makes you much more vulnerable to these positions of power. We go on and on about science’s lack of women, but it’s because they’re leaving. Whether it’s a huge sexual harassment case, or it’s something really big that’s happened, or it’s just these constant knocks to you because of your gender.
Suzie: But these things don’t change overnight. And you know, bringing in a policy now is really helpful. But we have to recognise that it takes years of work to change this kind of thing. It doesn’t just change in a heartbeat.