February 11th was the second ever International Day of Women and Girls in Science – launched in 2016 by the UN to publicise the growing global movement to combat gender inequality in the scientific community and educational opportunities.
Gender inequalities exist in all industries and at all levels: they become more prominent as the level of power increases (The percentage of CEOs that are female is woefully small) and are not improved by issues such as the gender pay gap and general sexism in the workplace, which is now often ingrained rather than overt and therefore harder to combat. The UN is trying to draw attention to women in science and technology specifically, because these are pioneering fields of study that will hugely benefit from the contribution brought by an increased pool of intelligent and innovative brains. It argues economic, cultural, and moral benefits to have more women enter the STEM subject world.
A study cited by the UN, across 14 countries, showed that the probability for female students of graduating with a Bachelor’s degree, Master’s degree and Doctor’s degree in science-related field are 18%, 8% and 2% respectively, while the percentages of male students are 37%, 18% and 6%. These statistics can be changed – all it will take is a global effort to increase female participation in science, but how?
One of the most important ways to encourage more girls to pursue a career in the sciences is to put current role models on much wider display. During my school days, the only female scientist to take any prominence was Marie Curie: a brilliant scientist from the late 1800s. Female scientists do not have much visibility in textbooks because when early scientific research was being recorded, females in general did not have much visibility. To illustrate my point, I did a quick look into why I have only ever heard of the first man on the moon, not the first woman. Neil Armstrong is a household name, why isn’t there a female equivalent? Well the first thing I discovered was that a woman has never been to the moon. So there’s that. But why? Then I discovered that NASA wouldn’t accept women applicants to the astronaut corps until 1978. Almost a decade after the first flight to the moon! But don’t get me properly started on sexism, let’s move on.
What we need is to show girls that you don’t have to be a man to be a scientist or doctor. We need to show them all the female scientists who live and work today, making groundbreaking research discoveries and generally being incredibly smart and successful. We need to show them that a precedent has been set and this proves that they can do anything they put their minds to – rise to the top of their field and become a leading expert in genetics, or marine biology, or artificial intelligence – that these women exist and should be celebrated.
So the International Day of Women and Girls in Science is a great place to start: start raising the profiles of female scientists, start to inspire girls to study more difficult or stereotypically ‘male’ subjects, start the fight to fund education for girls in countries where they are still considered second-class. These issues won’t just go away if we ignore them. So maybe think twice before you buy that pink plastic toy cooker/washing machine for your niece and wonder if she might want a kitchen chemistry set instead.