Nicola Woodroofe: Science should not be a male preserve

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A RECENT report by the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee highlighted that only 17 per cent of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) professors in UK universities are women. It’s a rather underwhelming proportion when you consider the many initiatives that have been introduced to tackle this under-representation.

The report refers to one of the reasons for this being “perceptions and biases” combined with “the practicalities of combining a career with family”. To tackle those perceptions of girls who are considering going into science subjects at A-level and beyond we need to provide excellent role models in the form of women who are successful in STEM subjects, as well as having both male and female teachers of these subjects in schools. Already some initiatives are paying off; more girls are starting to engage in these subjects at GCSE and A-level. The percentage of girls studying physics and chemistry at GCSE increased by 82 per cent and 79 per cent respectively between 2009 and 2012, while at A-level both rose by 13 per cent in the same period.

Young girls should not be bound by tradition or feel that they cannot enter careers that have been a traditionally male preserve. Our job as academics in universities is to dispel the myth that women can only work in certain sectors and roles, and to help women and girls see that they don’t have to conform to stereotypes. As a nation, we need to devote, time, money and resources into promoting STEM subjects to girls. If we don’t we are restricting their opportunities for a fulfilling and interesting career, limiting their options for the future.

But while these figures show that girls are beginning to get the message that they can perform as well as boys in STEM subjects, we can’t ignore the fact that the number of girls furthering their qualifications in these subjects in higher education is disappointing.

Take chemistry, for example. Of those studying at A-level, 47 per cent are female. At university, this falls to 43 per cent and at doctorate level it shrinks again to 39 per cent. By the time you reach professor level, only eight per cent of university chemistry professors are female. That is an astounding loss of talented women.

Some STEM subjects, such as engineering, attract a preponderance of male applicants. It means universities need to do their best to ensure that potential and current undergraduates see female role models in our institutions, allowing them to be able to see a future for themselves in these disciplines. Similarly, work placements for girls in STEM employment is vital and the Women in Science Engineering and Technology team at Sheffield Hallam University are encouraging employers to give these placement opportunities to girls.

For me, working in biomedical research my work is enquiry-led, exciting and fulfilling, but not without its frustrations, particularly around funding for research. It has also provided me with the opportunities to support and encourage future generations of researchers through supervision of PhD students, many of whom are women who have gone on to scientific careers.

But we also need to address the issue around career progression. The number of female academics in UK higher education institutions rose to just under 54 per cent in 2011/12 but we still have this low percentage (around 20 per cent) of female professors.

At Sheffield Hallam University, I chair the Women Professors’ Group which seeks to inspire and encourage women to climb the academic ladder. We have implemented a mentoring scheme where women in middle grade academic posts are paired with current professors (male and female) to build their confidence, help them reflect on their career development and to consider strategies to raise their profile and prepare themselves for professorial applications. If women are not enabled to progress to senior positions within universities, they will be unable to influence change.

The bottom line is that we need to work harder to inform, not just girls in secondary education, but also their families who play a huge part in influencing their perceptions, about the positive opportunities in STEM. We need to provide the career insights and role models that will inspire them in their studies, support in terms of building their confidence to overcome bias and resistance from society and clear sign-posting on the alternative routes into STEM careers.