Bristol marches for science – but women are being left behind

A human skeleton, a collection of anti-Trump banners, and a backwards rendition of Led Zepplin’s Stairway to Heaven. Three things not usually found together – unless you were at Bristol’s very first March for Science.

Ever year on 22 April, people across the world take part in marches to commemorate Earth Day: an annual celebration to raise the profile of science and the environment.

In Bristol, over 2000 people attended the city’s own March for Science, held in Millennium Square, to show their support for scientific discovery, and highlight concerns that science and research are increasingly undervalued in a ‘post-truth’ society.

Speakers included author and mathematician Simon Singh, and wildlife presenter Chris Packham. Their speeches touched on a range of topics – from the ethics of dog breeding, to Donald Trump’s scepticism of climate change.

Millennium Square played host to a range of stalls and activities to mark Earth Day. Photo credit: Helen West

Also on the agenda was the lack of diversity in STEM fields (science, engineering, technology, and mathematics). In a speech to marchers, Dr Suzi Gage, who completed her PhD in experimental psychology at the University of Bristol, said: “Science as a research field needs to work on its diversity and representation.”

She highlighted the achievements of Bristol-born Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman to be awarded a medical degree in the United States, and Dorothy Hodgkin, the only British woman to have won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, and who served as Chancellor of the University of Bristol for two decades.

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Across the country, women are under-represented in STEM subjects, in both higher education and the job market. According to the Women’s Engineering Society, only 10% of the UK’s engineering professionals are female – the lowest percentage in Europe.

Bristol is no exception. Figures obtained from the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) show that between between 2013 and 2016, men outnumbered women in the physical sciences, mathematical sciences, computer science, and engineering & technology, at both the University of Bristol and the University of the West of England.

So why are so few women pursuing careers in STEM subjects? Emily Hellewell works for Mini Professors, who run educational sessions for pre-school age children, with the aim of introducing them to science. She says she’s definitely noticed the under-representation of women, and believes gender stereotypes and parental attitudes both contribute to the issue.

Work is being done in Bristol to counter the stereotypes. The University of Bristol and the University of the West of England (UWE) are both members of the Athena SWAN Charter. The charter, set up by the British Equality Challenge Unit, aims to improve equality within higher education. As members, both West Country institutions commit to a list of principles, including addressing gender inequality in academia.

“If you ask somebody to picture an engineer, they picture a man with a spanner or a hard hat.”

Dr Catherine Hobbs is Head of Department for Engineering Design and Mathematics at UWE. One of the things UWE is doing to recruit more women into STEM subjects is training staff in unconscious bias.

Dr Hobbs said: “If you ask somebody to picture an engineer, they picture a man with a spanner or a hard hat. They don’t picture a woman, they don’t have a gender neutral picture of that profession.”

Unconscious bias happens when our brains make quick decisions based on biases we may not be aware of, and this can influence decisions made during the recruitment and selection decisions.

Dr Hobbs added: “You probably can never get rid of that entirely, but what you can do is raise people’s awareness that we all have personal biases, so that when we are reviewing job applications and interviewing candidates, we’re really aware of where we might be unconsciously making decisions based on things that aren’t relevant to the job, like gender.”

Getting more girls into science at an educational level is a step in the right direction – but it’s not just within education that women can be left behind. Women who pursue a career in a STEM subject can find themselves struggling to compete with men within the workplace.

Dr Isabel Murillo is a Senior Teaching Associate in Microbiology at the University of Bristol. She explains why women find it difficult to reach the highest levels of scientific achievement, and why the March for Science is important to her.

“See it and be it”

So why does gender inequality matter? For one, more women in science would benefit the national economy. The UK needs more scientists and engineers, and is facing an annual shortfall of 40,000 STEM skilled workers.

March for Science
A male historian? Or a female engineer? Photo credit: Helen West

Diversity is also needed to provide female role models for younger girls. Helen Farmer is a freelancer working at improving diversity within marketing, but she is also passionate about diversity within STEM. Last year, she delivered a talk about the lack of diversity to the Women in Engineering society at the University of Bristol.

Helen says role models play a huge part in getting children and young people interested in STEM subjects. “I’m really keen on accelerating diversity through real role models for women and girls,” she says. “Role models help people ‘see it and be it,’ and it builds their confidence and choices.”

Significantly, a mixed workforce also ensures the creation of new and original ideas. Helen says: “At the minute, it’s the same thing and the same kind of conversations”. Getting more women involved in science would help change the culture of science, and could improve the quality of scientific output.

Two contenders for the ‘best banner’ competition. Photo credit: Helen West

Bristol’s March for Science showcased what the city is doing to improve gender diversity in science. However, it’s clear that there’s still work to be done to ensure the world of science is accessible to everyone.

Related links:

At-Bristol Science Centre

Science Grrrl – celebrating women in science

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