The Flick attends WOW session ‘Caught In The Net’, chaired by Tomorrow’s World alumnus and science teacher Kate Bellingham. Four women in science share their experiences, discuss the widening gender gap and offer real solutions.
Sam works for Southbank Centre, the organisers of WOW (Women of the World) Festival.
Did you know that only 13% of scientists in the UK are women, the lowest rate in Europe? We could attribute most of the blame to the difficulties of raising a child in this country, but motherhood is just one of many factors preventing women from rising to the top in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) careers.
Growing up, space scientist Maggie Aderin-Pocock went to a whopping 13 different schools due to her family circumstances and quickly learned how to become adaptable. However, it was a trick of confidence that set her on the road to science.
She’d been in remedial class for most of her school life when, at a change of schools, the school authorities asked her what level she should be at, to which she replied “Oh, I should be in the top stream.” By the time she’d been found out, she’d done more science in the top stream than she’d ever been allowed to in remedial class. She was hooked.
Aderin-Pocock is a living example of what can happen when science is made accessible to those who struggle under the traditional education system. But what about those children who don’t have the confidence to get out? Should they have to trick their teachers in order to be allowed to do a subject that is perceived to be for ‘smarter’ students?
Bellingham emphasised that the blame shouldn’t be placed with teachers – they have strict guidelines to work to – but does believe that the way science is taught can make a massive difference. Ideally she’d like to see children being allowed space to explore scientific ideas, and see what happens for themselves. This approach may take more time, but it gives them enthusiasm (they’ll continue to explore in their spare time), and will leave a student with “an ability to learn”.
The ‘scientific imagination’- the art of sitting and doing nothing except thinking freely – is lauded by the panelists. I can see its benefits; if it was good enough for daydreamer Richard Feynman, and hardcore-sleeper Thomas Edison, it’s good enough for students too.
But what does all of this have to do with the gender split? The panellists generally agree that female students respond better to learning maths and science when starting with context – the reason we use the maths or science – rather than learning tricks to tackle science, methods that have been seen to favour the more male way of learning. Unfortunately, as Bellingham points out, “we had to do it the more male way in schools”.
And surely it’s not helpful for both sexes, when, as science communicator Emily Sidonie-Grossman says, doing well at school is down to ticking boxes and learning tricks rather than nurturing a deeper understanding. In science, the communicators and the collaborators are the most effective. Aderin-Pocock adds “The problem is, thinking is hard to measure. Ticking boxes, exams, is easy to measure. We’d have to abolish league tables!”
I suddenly realise that I’m sitting across from some of the country’s sharpest scientists, yet I’m getting the impression they might consider convincing Michael Gove to change his approach to education policy the trickiest problem they’ve come across to-date.
Alarmingly 46% of schools in the UK did not send a single girl to study A level physics in 2012 - the discussion turns to horror stories about being told to “do biology, physics is for boys” – but what about those who buck the trend?
Sidonie-Grossman attended an all-girls’ school where it was “cool to be good”, and physics was not perceived to be a male subject. Sadly, after just 6 months studying Natural Sciences at Queens’ College Cambridge she began to falter. Her tutors were all male, and most of her colleagues too, and they appeared to be so much more confident than she was. Despite this, she achieved the highest marks in the end of year exams for physics – but by then had already switched her focus to biology.
The speakers believe that a lack of confidence, or in particular ‘imposter syndrome’ is endemic in women. I learn that for every one woman that is asked to speak on her subject of expertise in public, six women have to be asked first. (Conversely, they say, if you ask a man, he’ll usually say yes and read up later if he needs to!)
Here comes the science bit…concentrate
Last year the European Commission invested £80k into a now-notorious video aimed at recruiting young women in science called ‘Science: It’s a Girl Thing!’
Medical physicist Heather Williams was horrified when she saw this video that tries to sell science, but ‘looks like a cosmetics advert’. She wanted someone to do something, and convey the message to young woman that science is “more different, and exciting than [this] pastiche of girliness” – and she realised that someone “might as well be me”.
Yes, it’s *that* video
Williams established ScienceGrrl to celebrate the work of women in STEM, and has made a fund-raising calendar, showing “real women doing great science”. She’s also a ‘leading light’ of the STEM ambassador programme, which aims to bring the excitement and career opportunities of STEM to young people, regardless of background.
Lipstick in the lab
Being typically girly is, of course, not a barrier to STEM subjects, as Bellingham notes “You can still be you, and do science.” Fun and creativity don’t exist in a parallel universe to science; Sidonie-Grossman’s unusual CV is a perfect illustration of this (she’s boomeranged between being a science researcher, then an actress/singer and back to science as a tutor and communicator), and she insists that she uses the same analytic skills in science, as she does when reading a script or music.
It’s lamented that subjects at school are typically siloed, and exist independently of each-other, and that having to choose between science and the arts early (particularly in the English school system) is filtering out a lot of potential scientists who feel their creative energy belongs in the arts.
Africa: Where science is sexy
In Africa ‘science is sexy’- a phrase that Jamme repeats with such zeal throughout the discussion, it brings to mind webcomic xkcd’s ‘rule 34’. Africa’s future depends on getting women engaged in science, and here are plenty of initiatives to encourage them, including ‘tech hubs’ and Spot1Mentoring, which she runs.
And it’s working. last year, four 15-year-old girls arrived at Maker Faire Africa in Lagos, Nigeria, with their creation- a urine powered generator. Clearly, nobody had told them that girls couldn’t do science. (Also- note that the girls are known as ‘Makers’ not scientists- underlining yet again how their work has real-life applications)
Live science, or die not trying
Globally, science is important as it is strongly linked to the future of humanity. Jamme highlights the billions of dollars Bill Gates has invested in sanitation solutions, and 3-D printing.
So it seems, the UK is being left behind in STEM subjects, and recruiting more women at school-age is crucial to catching up again – indeed, in Africa and the rest of the world curricula have been faster adapted to their respective countries’ long-term needs.
I leave the discussion with Jamme’s warning echoing in my ears: “We need action, otherwise we’ll never make it.”
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