Archive | September, 2014

I want my jetpack: Why STEM’s woman problem affects everyone

27 Sep

So, I’ve talked about the dearth of women in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering & Maths) fields. And I’ve talked about wanting to encourage little girls who think science is cool, and show them that they, too, can grow up to be scientists. But I haven’t talked so much about why this matters.

Obviously it matters to me. As a woman in science, I have a personal stake in the issue. But maybe you’re not in STEM yourself, or you’re a man, or both, and maybe these things make it harder to see why you should care about this issue.

Well, I have some suggestions on that topic.

Have you ever thought something along the lines of “it’s the year 2014, where’s my jetpack?” It doesn’t have to be a jetpack you’re waiting for. Maybe you want a cool Marty McFly-style hoverboard, or a flying car, or one that drives itself. Or perhaps, rather than a neat new gadget, what you’d really like is a solution to an existing problem. A Babel fish, or abundant clean fuel, or safe drinking water for everyone on the planet. Or how about a cure for a certain disease? Cancer, or HIV, or Alzheimer’s, or even just the common cold. If that’s not ambitious enough for you, maybe you’d like some immortality?

The exact nature of the scientific or technological advance you’re waiting for isn’t the point. The point is that most people have some wishlist items that can only come into existence via the efforts of people in STEM. I’d like you to pick one – the thing you most want STEM to deliver for you – and think of that thing. It’ll need an inventor, obviously. Someone whose brain can turn this idea into a reality. Imagine that this person is already out there, somewhere in the world.

…Now imagine that she’s given up her pursuit of STEM, despite her interest in the field, because cultural forces pushed her away from it. Or maybe those forces meant that she never developed an interest in STEM in the first place. Either way, instead of becoming a scientist or engineer, she’s entered a field that seems more welcoming to people of her gender. A field where she won’t have a chance to invent the thing.

I guess you’ll just have to keep waiting.


(And yes, this idea that there is One Person who could invent the thing is a glib oversimplification of the way inventions happen, used above only for rhetorical effect. The fact remains that the more good STEM people there are in the world, the greater the chances that STEM will produce a decent version of [particular thing] within [specific number of years]. Maybe if we hadn’t spent so long excluding half the population, we’d already have some of the items on our technological wishlists.)

Why I do science outreach (a selection of reasons)

17 Sep

Over the summer, I took a couple of days off work and spent a long weekend helping out on a science outreach roadshow. I first got involved with this outreach group when I was at university, and their roadshow’s been a regular feature of my summer ever since – this was my 5th year. Why do I keep going back? Lots of reasons. The chance to hang out with a group of like-minded nerds (i.e. the other volunteers) is always good, and this year I spent some rather enjoyable time plotting potential future experiments with a fellow Materials Scientist. The experiments themselves are pretty enjoyable too, even from the perspective of a grown-up: a chance to play with fun science things like vacuum chambers, a chance to think about real-world uses of all sorts of scientific principles, sometimes even a chance to learn new stuff (did you know that there’s a security feature on banknotes which only shows up when you look at the note with an infrared camera? I didn’t!)

But the thing I enjoy most about the roadshow is the audience. The public events I helped out on this year were open to all ages, but most of the visitors were families with primary-school-aged children. Kids of this age, by and large, haven’t yet absorbed the idea that it’s “uncool” to enthusiastically like certain things. Science hasn’t acquired the stigma of nerdiness for them. These children are perfectly willing to engage, and when you show them an interesting new thing – like how they can build a bridge strong enough to walk across, or the way certain objects glow under UV light – they get genuinely excited. They declare it to be cool, and want to see more, and it’s so much fun knowing you showed them something they enjoyed.

I’d like to hope that these kids will always be willing express their genuine enjoyment for things, that they never feel as though their enthusiasm is something they need to hide. When it comes to enjoying science, I particularly find myself hoping this for the case with the girls in the audience, because I know – just look at the statistics – that they’re far less likely to end up pursuing science than their male counterparts. And it’s not for lack of ability (if it were, boys should be outperforming girls on science GCSEs: they’re not), nor some biologically-hardwired lack of inclination (if it were, there’d be a similar dearth of female scientists and engineers in other European countries: there’s not). It’s probably many things, because the world is complex, but one of the many things is a cultural perception that science is Not For Girls.[1]

It was refreshing, on the roadshow, to see girls who haven’t yet absorbed this message. A particular mention must go to the little girl who’d clearly dressed up specially for her visit – in an old adult’s white shirt that fell to her knees and looked like a child-sized labcoat, with a picture of the periodic table drawn by hand on the back. And bright pink shoes, because contrary to popular belief, you can enjoy stereotypical girl things and science at the same time. I hope that little girl remembers this fact as she grows up. I know there’ll be plenty of messages out there telling her (and all the other little girls like her) that science is not for her. But on the more positive side, I also know that a lot of efforts are being made to counter those messages. These efforts can be as big as a national event, or as small as individual people being visibly female and scientists at the same time. I fall into the latter category: I’m just one of many data points that says “actually, you can do this”, but I’m happy to be a data point. And that’s another very good reason to keep doing science outreach.



[1] The ubiquity of this perception was brought home to me in a meeting earlier today: three people in a room, all female scientists, discussing future options for a work project. Somehow we all ended up referring to the hypothetical researcher-doing-the-future-science as “he”, because that felt like the natural thing to do. Even as women in science, we still carry the idea that science is mainly something for men.