STEMing the flow – How can we keep women in STEM subjects?

This post was contributed by Lucy Tallentire, from Birkbeck’s School of Business, Economics and Informatics

stemming-the-flowMuch has been done in recent years to foster girls’ confidence in their abilities in Mathematics and Science, and go for a career in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics). While 33% of the undergraduate course intake across these subjects in the UK is now female, the statistics on retention of female academics in STEM subjects are still far from indicating an even playing field. So does a career in STEM pose specific challenges for women? And what are the challenges when building a STEM career in the university sector?

These questions were among those discussed by guest speaker Professor Ursula Martin, CBE, who joined the Birkbeck TRIGGER team last week to discuss how female academics in STEM can navigate the challenges of a male-dominated sector. The event took the form of a conversation between Professor Martin, of the University of Oxford, and Dr Maitrei Kohli, who recently completed her PhD in the Departments of Computer Science & Information Systems and Psychological Sciences at Birkbeck.

Unconscious Biases

It was quickly agreed that, while a recent surge in opportunities for girls to engage with coding and science is certainly influential, a major responsibility to get more girls into STEM starts at home. Parents and early age role models are more likely to have a restrictive influence on aspiration if they impose social gender stereotypes on toys and activities – Lego and sport versus dolls and dancing. A key thing to consider is the parallels between these stereotypes and the STEM industries; there is an inherent need to first recognise unconscious biases in order to try to avoid them, and that needs to start at an early age.

Both Professor Ursula Martin and Dr Matrei Kohli had parents who encouraged them to develop their own interests. Dr Kohli, originally from India, went to a school which offered computing alongside other extra-curricular options such as music and dance. With parental support, she learned about computer science through basic exercises and play, and never saw herself as different to her male classmates. By contrast, Professor Martin had no access to science outside of her prescribed schooling:

“I went to a school where maths and physics were taught poorly. But before we took our GCSE equivalent exams, we got a new, much younger teacher who was an inspiration to many of us. There is certainly something to be said for motivating the next generation from a young age – you can’t re-educate girls of 13 to like a subject they have been put off from age three!”

The need for change

The low number of female professors of Computer Science in the UK begins with the low numbers of women studying the subject at university – less than 20%. However, while more and more girls are starting degrees in STEM subjects, women are still under-represented at professorial levels in all STEM disciplines, typically at 17%. This varies between disciplines and in computer science the current average is just 10%. This demonstrates a need for changes in universities so as to encourage more women to embark on and progress with a career in academia:

“There are a lot of different incentives for women to work in higher education, but more changes need to be made. For example, if a university board requires a female professorial representative, that woman is chosen from a much smaller pool of professors and adds an extra burden to their workload. This bias is also present at conferences and events, where women are not as well represented – but surely we should be encouraging careful work on a few very good papers rather than working frantically to present something new.”

After an insightful conversation, Professor Martin was asked what advice she would offer to the female researchers and PhD students in STEM, hoping to progress in their academic careers. Her answer: passion, hard work and confidence.

“There are challenges to every work-life balance and the important thing is to adjust, and make room for your passion and curiosity. There could not be a more interesting field – try to think of an area of work devoid of computers. Do not be put off by gloomy statistics; research in STEM is to be cherished as an interesting endeavour, and we must do more to promote it as an equal opportunity wherever and to whomever we can.”

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