International Day of women and girls in science is on 11 February each year. The date was chosen to honour the birthday of Marie Curie, a pioneering physicist and chemist.
In 2016, the United Nations declared 11 February as International Day of Women and Girls in Science. This declaration was to encourage more girls and women to take up jobs in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). There is no significant difference in ability between boys and girls in maths and science, however, less than 35% of graduates in STEM subjects worldwide are women and there are even fewer in engineering and information technology.
Female role models
Marie Curie, nee Maria Skłodowska, was born in Warsaw in 1867. When she was 24 Marie moved to France and studied at the Sorbonne, reading physics, chemistry, and mathematics. Later, Marie Curie would later become the first female professor at the university.
She and her husband Pierre, were the first to separate polonium and radium from uranium, a discovery for which both received the Nobel prize for physics along with Henri Becquerel in 1903. Pierre Curie died in a road accident in 1906. Five years later (1911), Marie won her second Nobel prize, for chemistry.
From Newcastle University
“We’re celebrating some of the incredible women we have in science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine roles here at Newcastle University.”
Dr Kelly Kousi, Research Associate in Chemical Engineering
What does it mean to be a woman in STEM?
“…sometimes, especially in engineering, you can be one of a kind, something like a unicorn.” “Being a minority in the field can be daunting, always trying to prove that you are good enough. However, being here is also rewarding because it means you were able to overcome any preconception and you can now represent what women are capable of in STEM.”
What advice would you give to young women going into your industry?
“Being a woman in engineering and academia is yet to be easy. Most often you will have to try extra hard to be seen as an engineer and not as a woman engineer… through this job you actually get to change the world. Just look for the right mentors and people that can inspire you and hold on to always being yourself.”
Lisa Deveaux-Robinson, Senior Chemical and Biological Technician in the School of Engineering
Lisa manages the One Planet Teaching Lab, the Houston Lab. “It’s the university’s first ever, cross faculty shared teaching lab and it’s simply amazing. My role here … requires a wide range of knowledge and skills from techniques to instrument usage, .., and safety awareness. I am … responsible for Houston based Engineering Master and undergraduate practicals. I’ve got the best job in the world!
“There have been many strong women who have inspired me but one who continually does, is Rosalind Franklin. The British scientist is best known for her contributions in discovering the molecular structure of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA). …She undoubtedly faced sexism in the workplace – hard to believe that rather than listen to her as the seminar speaker, men found it acceptable to instead discuss her looks and how she was dressed! Rather than letting those prejudices define her, she simply worked harder and remained steadfastly focused on her work. A truly brilliant scientist.”
What advice would you give to young women going into your industry?
“.., never give up, work hard and always to the very best of your ability… “when someone tells you it can’t be done, it’s more a reflection of their limitations, not yours. Go for it.”
Rosalind Franklin made a crucial contribution to the discovery of the double helix structure of DNA. She was born on July 25, 1920, in London. At age 18, she studied physics and chemistry at Cambridge University. In 1946, she moved to Paris where she worked to obtain the highest level of a skill in X-ray crystallography. Later she accepted a job at King’s College. Rosalind Franklin produced a beautiful photo which was an X-ray diffraction picture of a DNA molecule, the pattern of which was clearly a helix. Watson and Crick used Rosalind Franklin’s photograph and their own data, to create their famous DNA model. Franklin’s contribution was not acknowledged, but after her death Crick said that her contribution had been critical.
Gender in science
The gender gap starts early. In the US by 11-12 years of age more than twice as many boys as girls want to work in science or engineering related jobs. In college entrants five times more men than women report they want to pursue engineering or computer science.
Reasons for the shortage of women in STEM subjects
It wasn’t that long ago that female was represented as mentally weaker and more emotional while men were seen as mentally superior relying on rationality, These widespread society beliefs were useful for a patriarchal society that tried to maintain the male-female mistruth. This patriarchal belief has been challenged over the past 50 years. Challenging this falsehood is easier now because societal demands for innovation and productivity requires the full participation of all qualified people including women.
Explicit bias can be recorded by person responding to a survey and explicitly saying that they believe both men and women are capable in science. Implicit bias might be shown if that same person were to show faster responses when pairing male-science (and female-arts) words compared with when pairing male-arts (and female-science) words; suggesting they hold implicit beliefs linking men (more than women) with science over arts. More than two decades of research on implicit gender stereotypes have conclusively shown that gender biases in STEM are indeed prevalent across the lifespan, across genders, across nations, and across time.
“Gender gaps in STEM are evident in representation (particularly in high-status positions and in subfields of computer sciences and engineering) and compensation. … Gender gaps in STEM appear, in part, to arise from differences in perceived values and opportunities in environments, as well as pervasive implicit and explicit biases that shape the perceptions of these values and environments.”
Charlsworth and Banaji discussed what ways have been used to address biases in STEM organizations. They quote a 2013 publication which showed that most diversity training implemented from the 1960s to the early 2000s had either no impact or even slightly reduced the diversity of the workforce.
More promising are approaches include ‘habit-breaking’ workshops. Racial and gender biases reduced from habit-breaking intervention. These interventions assume that implicit biases are like habits. Participants were made aware of the biased habits they may have. After promoting bias awareness, participants in the “habit-breaking” intervention have the strategies to reduce bias. Helpful to this approach is generating examples of people from other groups who challenge stereotypical assumptions (e.g., Marie Curie).
Research on interventions to change the beliefs of individuals and their behaviours as well as organization and practice are ongoing and must continue.
Tessa E.S. Charlesworth and Mahzarin R. Banaji, Viewpoints. Gender in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics: Issues, Causes, Solutions. Journal of Neuroscience 11 September 2019, 39 (37) 7228-7243; DOI: https://doi.org/10.1523/JNEUROSCI.0475-18.2019