Overcoming the so-called ‘male, pale and stale’ world of STEM

By Nabila Juhi, Urmston Grammar School

I was going to find a cure for cancer, seven-year-old me decided. From a young age I’ve always been interested in science. It was perhaps one subject where I felt I’d found my niche: it was logical, I was good at it and it provided me with answers to questions I’d yet to even consider. Coming from an immigrant family, with parents who didn’t continue onto higher education, I was encouraged to stick to it – without any mention of the inequalities of women working in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). Perhaps unsurprisingly, statistics about women in the UK STEM workforce aren’t all that interesting for a child still learning her timetables.

Marie Curie
ca. 1898 — Marie Curie — Image by © Underwood & Underwood/CORBIS

Like many young women it didn’t take me long to notice the differences. Of course, the curriculum had its obligatory ‘women in STEM’; Marie Curie and Florence Nightingale being two women that most people remember. The works of women of colour, Maryam Mirzakhani for example, generally didn’t make it into these generic lists. Since I have very few scientists in my own family, I was forced to look elsewhere for my own inspiration and motivation.

This isn’t to undermine Marie Curie’s work. The youngest daughter of poor polish school teachers, moving to France to study, and then becoming the first woman to ever win a Nobel Prize is nothing to belittle. For me, and many of my peers, the national curriculum still felt lacking. Surely there had been many more diverse women in history that had made a profound effect on the way we look at ourselves as well as the world around us?

This is where my interest in science history arose. Not many people will dispute that the contributions of women in the most profound discoveries to date are sometimes forgotten or minimised. Rosalind Franklin is a well-known example – using her work on DNA and X-ray crystallography, Watson and Crick were awarded the Nobel Prize for the discovery of the structure of DNA. There are many other examples of women losing out simply because their male counterparts were seen by some as more credible, or more worthy. Katherine Johnson recalls not having a single woman in her division at NASA having their name on a report;

In the early days of NASA women were not allowed to put their names on the reports – no woman in my division had had her name on a report. I was working with Ted Skopinski and he wanted to leave and go to Houston … but Henry Pearson, our supervisor – he was not a fan of women – kept pushing him to finish the report we were working on. Finally, Ted told him, ‘Katherine should finish the report, she’s done most of the work anyway.’ So Ted left Pearson with no choice; I finished the report and my name went on it, and that was the first time a woman in our division had her name on something.”

Flossie Wong-Staal
Flossie Wong-Staal

Of course, there are other women whose achievements go unnoticed by the wider public. A favourite of mine is the work of Flossie Wong-Staal, who cloned HIV for the first time and mapped its genetic composition during the AIDS crisis in the 80’s, making it possible for HIV tests to be made.

History is history and I am still in the process of learning about the women who went before me. However, the women who have had much more of a profound effect on my aspirations to be a scientist have to be the women working in STEM today. My own science teachers, PhD students and lecturers I’ve met at various public events and even the scientists I follow on social media (@upulie and @Helena_LB on Twitter to name a few), have all inspired and inadvertently taught me how to become a confident and assertive learner.

Knowing that only 21% of the STEM workforce in the UK are women (WISE, 2016) is startling and scary. As young women, many of us worry about casual sexism in the workplace and being able to excel on the basis of hard work and talent alone. Although cases of sexism and sexual harassment are in the minority, they are still an issue and may contribute to the low numbers of young women going into STEM careers.

But that’s only one side of the story. Encouraging young girls to pursue their interests in STEM from a young age is the first step. The number of girls and boys taking STEM related subjects at GCSE is gender balanced – because maths and science qualifications are compulsory. Once we move up the academic ladder, however, we see fewer and fewer girls choosing to stay in STEM despite numerous studies showing girls outperforming boys throughout their GCSE’s.

Ada Lovelace

It’s a complex issue that I won’t pretend to know the solution for. All I can really speak about are my own experiences. In one respect, it is about instilling confidence in young girls while treating them like mature people. We want the future generation of professional women to not doubt their abilities, following the attitude of women such as Ada Lovelace: “that brain of mine is something more than merely mortal, as time will show”. Toying with gender stereotypes of what young girls are meant to enjoy (see IBM’s previous #HackAHairdryer campaign) doesn’t inspire us; it undermines us. We can’t be forced into making a life out of STEM, we must be empowered to do so.

What we really want is to be taken seriously as young people. That may involve gender specific schemes giving us the opportunity to speak to women scientists. We want accessible representation, showing the many faces of STEM. Not just seeing more black and minority ethnic women, disabled women and perhaps openly LGBT scientists, but the many types of STEM workers there are: writers, researchers, leaders, policy makers, science communicators, teachers and so many more. In doing so we show young women, in particular, that working in STEM isn’t far-fetched. It is valuable work and women can bring a lot to the table.

About Me

I’m an 18 year old prospective biologist. I’ve just finished my A-levels at Urmston Grammar and have hopefully achieved what I need to secure a place at the University of Durham to study Biosciences. I also started a science blog earlier this year, pasteursflask, to get into science communication.


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