Image: Students at the For Girls In Science forum / Chris Loufte
We’ve heard it all before, and we know that it’s an issue: we need to encourage more young women to go into STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) careers.
The media’s heard it all before, too, or at least told us all about it. And while it’s great that it’s getting the attention that is needed, that’s not enough – and that’s coming from women who actually work in STEM careers.
Although the words alone from women who work in STEM fields should be enough for anyone, there’s data to back up the fact we still have work to do, too. In the United States, for example, research by the Boston Consulting Group shows only 35 per cent of young women who graduate from high school go into a career in science, and only 18 per cent graduate with a science degree. About 40 per cent of science bachelor’s degree graduates in Aotearoa are female.
Getting more young women into STEM, and encouraging them to stay in STEM careers, was the focus of the third annual For Girls In Science forum on September 9 at Auckland University. Supported by the university and sponsored by L’Oréal NZ, the event brought about 180 senior students from 20 schools around Auckland to learn about science and science careers from some of the best female scientists in Aotearoa – people like Margaret Brimble, president of the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC) Division of Organic and Biomolecular Chemistry, the first New Zealander to receive the L'Oréal–UNESCO For Women in Science Laureate in 2007, second to be awarded the Rutherford Medal, and the third woman to win the Marsden Medal for a lifetime of outstanding achievement. Respected nanophysicist Dr Michelle Dickinson, popularly known as ‘Nanogirl’, also hosted a panel discussion with female scientists about their careers, and lab tours showed the young women in attendance how rewarding – and awesome – a career in science can be.
Brimble says there shouldn’t be a “stigma” associated with women in science.
“I think it’s important to really capture the hearts and minds of these young girls when they’re at school, and probably back at primary school level, so they really are exposed to science as just a normal thing to do,” she explains.
“It’s just like becoming a doctor or a lawyer or running a business – you have a career in science. It’s not something geeky that people don’t really relate to.”
Brimble says she thinks it’s great more young women are going into STEM than at any time before.
“We have good entry levels into science from females,” she says.
“We’re definitely over the 50 percent mark. Good retention now from undergraduate to postgraduate [too]. That wasn’t necessarily the case [before]. There are some areas that are still a little bit low, things like engineering. Chemistry we’re doing better. Biology we’ve been doing well.”
But Brimble says it’s not enough to just get more women into science, but to break down obstacles that prevent them from remaining in those careers.
“The problem then is they do their post-doctoral work, they do their PhD work, they do their post-doctoral fellowship,” she explains.
“Then they’re hitting their 30s, and for women that’s when they’re thinking of having children. And so it’s that absolutely critical part when you’d normally embark on your independent career, suddenly the women have to fit in this family thing as well. And that’s really quite challenging. A lot of the positions you get as a young scientist are only short-term, short-contract type work. So it’s hard to keep going.”
And guess what? There’s hard data to back up what she’s saying.
A 2013 study led by University of Texas at Austin researcher Jennifer Glass found women leave STEM careers at more than twice the rate of women in other jobs. Even worse, after 12 years, half of women in technical careers – mostly in engineering and computer science – had switched to a different field.
The number of women in other professions switching to a different field was 20 per cent.
University of Otago marine science and geology lecturer Dr Christina Riesselman agrees with Brimble in that there’s a lot of work still to be done to help encourage young women to stick with STEM. Keeping women in STEM, she argues, is absolutely critical for diversity, which she says has all kinds of benefits.
“Having more women in STEM careers, and keeping them in those careers, is key for diversity,” she says.
“The more different minds you have chipping away [at a problem], the more solutions you’ll find.”
Dr Zoë Hilton is a researcher at Nelson’s Cawthron Institute, New Zealand’s oldest scientific research institute. Hilton, who took part in Dickinson’s panel discussion along with Riesselman, says we need more solutions to deal with ever-more-complex problems. “A lot of the issues we’re trying to solve now are global issues.”
And there’s a simple way to get more women to stay in STEM, she says.
“Pay equality would help.”
Dickinson says as big as the problem is, there are small steps we can all take to make a difference. Understanding that we all may have biases – which can then affect others – is an easy first step towards addressing the problem, she says. “Everybody needs to look up unconscious bias and see if they have it. We need to be aware.”
L’Oréal New Zealand group corporate communications manager Tanya Abbott says fighting stereotypes and biases towards women in STEM is a battle anyone can take part in. “Although this isn’t a new issue, there are still myths, stereotypes and gender differences preventing girls from pursuing a career in science,” she says.
“Our aim is to inspire and demystify science as a profession for young women to encourage more of them to take it up as a career. There has been heightened awareness. But the research we’ve done [shows the problem] is as simplistic as stereotypes. They’re very basic, but very real.”
Dickinson says for those that stay in STEM, the rewards are well worth the effort.
“Research shows that girls decide if science is for them or not by the age of 11,” she explains.
“I’m a firm believer you can achieve anything you set your mind to, if you work hard enough and find great people to share your journey.”
Abbott says it in even simpler terms.
“The world needs science. And science needs women.”
For anyone with lingering doubts about that, here’s a brief list of things invented by women: electric water heaters, life rafts, correction fluid, medical syringes, Kevlar, dishwashers, rotary engines, submarine telescopes, globes, windshield wipers, fire escape ladders, refrigerators, car heaters, central heating for homes and businesses, CCTV, paper bags, computer software, and many, many, many more things that 99.99 per cent of us could never come up with on our own.
Try imagining life without any of those things – hence why we need women in science.