Elevating voices: Women in Science, Engineering and Maths

Attending ‘Elevating voices’  last week was a really uplifting experience. The conference was held on the beautiful grounds of the University of Nottingham (on one of the hottest days of the year) by the Women in Science Engineering and Technology Group (WinSET). This was the 5th event held by WinSET and aimed to make womens presence felt by highlighting the contributions made by women in STEM and across the University. The focus was on getting female scientists voices heard, be that in the media, the university, or by developing your career voice.

The conference was a great success. It was well attended by female scientists from across the Departments at Nottingham University. The attendees ranged from lab techs and PhD students to professors. It was refreshing to be in a conference room and not be frantically scribbling all there is to know about microbial signalling! However there was still a lot to be learnt from the speakers, it really left me thinking.

For example speaker Dr Heather Williams Senior Medical Physicist and ScienceGrrl Director, gave a fascinating talk ‘Out of the frying pan and into the future: channelling the energy of outrage!’ which touched on the recent comments made by Tim Hunt about female scientists. She described how these comments acted as ‘a flash point’ resulting in public outrage from many in the science community (men and women). The overall effect was likened to drops of water dropping into a bucket, and that eventually one drop will make the bucket overflow. However now the flash point has been reached there is a tendency to quieten down again, until the bucket overflows again in another year for example.

She pointed out that though on the surface it looks like we have reached equality, there are still issues of unconscious bias in recruiting and salaries (shown by a 2012 paper in PNAS). Also even before this point we still have issues to address with the number of girls engaging with science, in particular with Physics. Heather quoted some interesting statistics from The Institute of Physics

http://www.iop.org/education/teacher/support/girls_physics/page_41593.html

For example currently only 20% of students progressing on to A-level physics are girls and even after that, at degree level female Physics undergraduates were less likely to finish their degrees. The reasons for this lack of women in Physics is complex and comprises many aspects such as the: cultural perception of Physics and the education system. Heather also highlighted a report by Sciencegrrl called ‘Through Both Eyes’

http://sciencegrrl.co.uk/assets/SCIENCE-GRRL-Stem-Report_FINAL_WEBLINKS-1.pdf

Which points out some important aspects for anyone making decisions on subjects for a future career: These were: Is it for people like me?  Do I feel confident? and can I see the pathways and possibilities?

Its an interesting point the ‘Is it for people like me’ question as only with increased visibility of women in physics will girls have the role models to encourage them along this career path. These 3 points chimed with my experience of Physics at A level. There were only two other girls doing the course and we were split between different classes, so we learnt in a very male environment. On top of this I didn’t feel very confident in my ability and no-one really encouraged me to work at it. Which led to my decision to follow the route of biological sciences instead.

Heather ended on a positive note encouraging female scientists to take opportunities to get out there and promote real role models.

I am hopeful that the presence of women in Physics will improve in the future and feel encouraged by the photography project on women in physics the my sister carried out a few years ago that there are a growing number of role models out there.

There were many other fascinating talks during the conference, to do with media engagement, the importance of technical staff in research, and workshops in how to develop a confident career voice.

I look forward to attending again next year!

(for more information on WinSET :http://www.nottingham.ac.uk/winset/index.aspx)

The UK’s First-Ever Life Sciences Minister

With the cabinet reshuffle that happened a few weeks ago a new post was created, Minister for Life Sciences. This role has been given to George Freeman who was previously the life sciences adviser to the ex-science and universities minister David Willetts and is also MP for mid Norfolk.

How this new position will interact with the new science and universities minister Greg Clark is still uncertain, however this move emphasizes that David Cameron sees Life Sciences to be important for developing  the countries economy. Whether this additional role will help or hinder the development of science policy is currently unknown. However I’m taking a positive outlook for now, as George Freeman has a background in life sciences so should be well equipped to make decisions in this area. My only worries are that this additional role for Life Sciences creates a distance between it and the other sciences and that duplication of similar roles can lead to  an overlap that results in contradictory science policy development.