In many parts of my life I’ve often found myself in male-dominated places. I’m a boxer, a sport in which men outnumber women by almost 30 to one. I’ve been involved in trade unions, which are routinely very white, very male and lacking in fresh blood. And: I also work in science, which, although it is changing, is still very male.
Despite being half of the total workforce, only 24% of people employed in Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) fields are women.
In my institute at least, PhD students are overwhelmingly female, although across the UK we make up just 35% of STEM PhDs. There are also comparatively few female professors and senior scientists, and women are less likely to pursue post-doctoral positions. Research suggests that men are more likely to stick around in academia, which produces an astonishing gap at the most senior levels, where only 11% of full professors are female.
Part of the reason is that entry-level academic positions come with little security and require frequent relocation. For a woman (or anyone else) who wants to have kids, this can be a real problem. It can be hard to get your foot back in the door once you’ve been on maternity leave – a problem which men don’t have to face in the same way.
Other women cite outright bullying, discrimination and harassment in the workplace – something that is completely out of place in 2018.
It starts young
To trace the origins of the problem, we have to rewind the clock and look at girls of school age. By age 16, only 35% of girls take physics, maths, computing or a vocational subject at school. By contrast, 94% of boys do. What causes there to be such a divide between boys and girls?
The answer is marketing. STEM subjects have a bad rep. They’re too hard, they’re too boring, or they’re an all-boys club. So how do we prevent this from becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy?
Changing the image of science
STEM subjects aren’t just for old men in lab coats. But convincing young women of that has required some serious PR. And while there’s been some great work done to change girls’ minds about science, there’s still a ways to go.
Female role models in STEM fields are so vital – if I had seen successful, interesting women doing science or maths when I was at school, I might not have dropped maths at A-level and had to painfully rediscover it during my undergraduate degree. Getting kids excited about science and showing them they can do it – all of them – is key to preventing that yawning chasm opening up between girls and boys by the time they hit 16.
It’s getting better
But, things are looking up. In 2015, women made up only 14.4% of the STEM workforce. Now, it’s nearly a quarter. More and more women are being vocal about the issues they face in science, but more importantly, also about what makes STEM fields great to work in. The trends look good, but only time will tell if the next generation of up-and-coming STEM talent will be more diverse in its gender representation.