Beyond outreach: a tough and uncertain world

In our final #GEW14 blog of the week, we leave you with Catherine Dunford, examines what the future holds for women in STEM.

STEM subjects – Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics – are widely recognised as being strategically important to our technology-based society and yet women remain under-represented in all areas of the sciences, which lie behind and drive those technologies.

We cannot doubt the efforts made to encourage girls into STEM subjects. Forum after forum, debates, discussion panels, symposia, seminars and webinars have discussed the need to get more women into these vital areas beyond the classroom. STEM professionals involved in outreach – both men and women – are some of the most passionate people out there and they do a successful job of translating their passion into inspiring our young STEM leaders of the future. They work tirelessly to bring science to life – putting it in context, and making it attractive to young people generally as well as those in under-represented groups. And not without reward: the good news is that in some areas, girls are taking up STEM subjects at school and university at approximately the same, if not greater rates, than boys. In some subjects, women outnumber men in higher education courses, but at the most senior levels of academia and industry this trend begins to reverse. Why? Where are the women? Many promising students and competent colleagues leave science; some of the brightest and most capable walk away from jobs in subjects they truly love taking with them years of investment in education and priceless experience. So where are we going wrong?

The answer is two-fold: expectations and retention.  Beyond the joy of discovery and the challenge of science, the workplace has a wildly different ethos from the lecture theatre. The expectation is that the STEM system is one of meritocracy and collaboration.  Young scientists arrive with a strong sense of parity and focus on the subject in relation to the job in hand. What they find is an environment that has been a club closed to women for centuries and where collaboration is being stifled by the monetary pressures that changed the collaborative science workplace into one of competition. While we have undoubtedly made great progress over the last century, there is still progress to be made. Progressive change is occurring but numerous reports over the last few years and a quick look up the ranks to the most senior levels has revealed an absence of women by their number.  Mentoring schemes exist but are not successful at a level that can stop the attrition rates.  As a consequence, faced with casual, everyday or direct, outright discrimination, and coupled with the changing face of research which is being skewed by monetary incentivisation, expectations of parity and collaboration are not met and women leave STEM in vast numbers.

Retention is just as important as encouraging women into the STEM workplace. We lament the lack of women in these strategic areas but we very rarely discuss or officially ask the women who leave – to whatever level – why they decided to leave. Businesses and institutions could learn from and integrate this highly valuable feedback, making changes that support women and retain their valuable skills and knowledge. Every woman working in STEM is an inspiration and a role model to others working in, towards or thinking of becoming a STEM professional. Every woman who leaves her position disenfranchised, dissuaded or defeated is a warning and therefore a signal to others that the environment is not worth the career investment. It is a significant investment that starts at high school and can continue through university from between three to ten years in education and the dedication of a working lifetime of continued professional development.

Making changes to improve the retention of women is a difficult task involving wholesale modification of the culture and politics of these professional environments. It is not enough simply to ‘preach to the converted’; most seminars on women in science and technology are populated with women who already understand the need for greater representation. It is not enough to encourage women in hostile environments to develop ‘thick skins’ or be ‘less sensitive’.  Both men and women have to be part of the process of culture change, which is to make a culture that is gender neutral and which does not discriminate but, rather, focuses on the ultimate ethos of the subject – learning, discovery and innovation. So many (myself included) were once that young girl, the one whose eyes sparkled during practical classes, who thirsted for knowledge and wanted to spend her life at the frontiers of what we don’t know, with the excitement of what we can discover at her fingertips. It is a precious thing because it is the inspiration that drives her through a tough and uncertain world. Our failure to protect and encourage that motivation is why so many women have voted with their feet and left.

Aliah Malik

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