In 1979, my mother and her friends were about to embark on their O levels at a single sex senior school in the South of England. Like myself, she decided she wanted to study biology, chemistry and physics – which unfortunately posed a problem.
Her school was happy to offer biology, a ‘soft’ science to the girls, but physics and chemistry were only taught at the adjoining boys school. Those subjects were deemed ‘too hard’ for girls. She was instead offered some more ‘female-appropriate’ alternatives like ‘secretarial skills’ and ‘childcare’.
Now, girls were allowed to take subjects at the boys sixth form and vice versa, but when her and a friend approached their headteacher to express their interest, they were given a straight no; girls were not allowed to study those sciences, they were not for girls.
Four years prior to my mother’s birth, in 1960, UNESCO held the ‘Convention against Discrimination in Education’ and 1975 saw the passing of the ‘Sex Discrimination Act’. These preceded my mother’s O level choices and unfortunately act as a prime example of how just making laws against discrimination is not enough to end it. Stating these acts and arguing their point without backing down however, meant my mother and her friend finally made headway and she was allowed to study all the sciences.
Thankfully, decades later when I came to choose my A levels, there were no rules stating I was not allowed to continue in science education. The sad reality is that in all this time, we are still leaps and bounds away from complete gender-equality in STEM subjects, and the stereotypes around different sciences still exists.
I studied Biomedical Science at university, and like others I know in the biology field, my course was female-heavy. The ratio was probably around 60-40. Take a look at the other side however, and you will find many physics, maths and engineering classes being heavily male dominated.
Whilst these are just anecdotal figures, The Institute of Engineering and Technology published some statistics which show these personal experiences are widely representative of the norm. Women make up 61.1% of Biological Sciences undergraduates, but only 17.4% of computer sciences undergrads, and 15.8% of engineering and technology undergrads. When 56% of UK university students are female, we really should be seeing more gender equality in the sciences. But we don’t, in fact these figures seem to be reflecting the science discrimination my mother faced in the 1970s.
These unbalanced figures get even worse when you look at the numbers of females who enter careers related to their field of study after university. Only 5.5% of engineering professionals are women. Once women are in the field it doesn’t improve much either, with only 9.8% of STEM managers being female.
And let’s not forget that these statistics apply mainly to white women. The representation of BME women in STEM fields is even less. In 2008, 86.2% of women employed in STEM fields were white. This is clearly not representative of the UK as a whole. This figure was mirrored in the men as well, where only 6.8% of STEM occupations held by men were held by BME men.
The reasons why women and underrepresented groups are not entering STEM education or career fields are obviously varied and complicated. One likely contributor is that there is simply not enough representation in science. Young women won’t see male dominated fields as an encouraging environment for women if they are not exposed to women in those fields who are happy in their role. Fear of having to justify their right to be there will undoubtedly put people off.
This problem is not just related to the UK, however. Teza Technologies, an American company, have produced this infographic sharing the issues with women in STEM across the pond:
Teza Technologies is just one example of the many organisations and projects worldwide that are working to promote STEM fields to women. This company in particular are doing so via the work of International Day of the Girl:
“International Day of the Girl is a holiday committed to celebrating the successes and opportunities available to girls all over the world. Teza Technologies CEO Misha Malyshev believes that everyday should be the Day of the Girl in order to celebrate their successes in life. These opportunities pertain to everything in life, but Teza Technologies wants to celebrate the women in science, technology, engineering, and math.”
International Day of the Girl occurs on October 11th, but it is not just one day. This is more a year-long movement to celebrate women and raise awareness of worldwide discrimination issues such as rape culture, media portrayal, career discrimination, and women in STEM.
International day of the girl is not alone in its mission. There are many organisations and projects across the UK and worldwide that are aimed at encouraging women to pursue science.
I am proud of my mother’s fight to study the subjects she was interested in and I am proud of the work being done worldwide to change science for the better. We still have far to go however, but my hope is that when my generation’s children come to chose their A levels, the world of science will be unrecognisable from the statistics of today.
- Holly Palmer