By Dr Caroline O’Hare, Business Communications & Marketing
There’s nothing to stop you from going into science. That’s what my teachers said, and I felt that there wasn’t. I had always been interested in science and had never felt that it was a male preserve. I went to a forward-looking girls’ school where choosing science A-levels was the norm and not the exception. Inspired by scientific pioneers like Rosalind Franklin and Dorothy Hodgkin, I would work hard, take a science degree and go into research, doing a PhD and working at the bench to make my contribution. At no point did I feel it was not a possibility; at no point did my gender come into it; what was all the fuss about?
Working in research there were plenty of female colleagues and their numbers grew over the years. My research lab had been predominantly male at the start but was predominantly female by the time I eventually left. However, this was not reflected further up the hierarchy. Senior staff were mostly male which seemed strange as these men were generally enlightened and supportive. So why was there such a disparity between the leadership and the ranks?
Over the years I worked in research, the turnover of women in the lab was marked. Women who had been extremely motivated and were highly qualified and skilled simply evaporated. They got married, started families, went part-time and then left while in general the men remained. Of course, there were some exceptions to this, a few women stayed. However, most that did, did not have children. Indeed, it was only when I had my first child that I began to understand the challenges that many women face. The challenge of juggling what is very much a full-time career with childcare responsibilities. The challenge of trying to generate novel and meaningful work while cramming it into a shortened week when I too went part-time. I was certainly not alone in this and some of my fellow female post-docs faced a financial deficit after covering the costs of childcare. They were effectively paying to keep working. Of course, this was simply not sustainable over time and so they and I left.
Now this is just my experience of working in STEM and we all have our own story to tell. I remain a passionate advocate of attracting women into STEM and am grateful to my exceptional school which encouraged this and made it feel both attainable and normal over thirty years ago. This may not be the case for everyone, even now. However, the reason for the lack of women in STEM, especially in leadership roles, is clearly more complex than we are prepared to admit.
Of course, we must continue to encourage women to choose STEM subjects at A-level and as a degree to swell the ranks of women entering STEM careers. The statistics are a stark reminder that there is still a considerable gender gap at this stage. Women only represent around a third of STEM students at university, with less than a fifth in engineering, technology and computer sciences. However, we must also do much more to keep women once trained in STEM too.
There is clearly a need to provide better support for those starting families so that they don’t need to choose between having a family and a STEM career. Studies have shown that there is a high rate of attrition in STEM for those having their first child. Although, not exclusively a female problem, as women are still frequently the main caregivers it has a drastic effect on the numbers of women in STEM. While this caring conundrum is also a wider societal problem, STEM jobs are fast-moving and often practical careers which are hard to pursue either part-time or from home. Consequently, it is only too easy to get left behind and often there is just no way back. This represents an enormous and unnecessary loss of experience and talent to the sector. So, what can be done?
Practical solutions to stem the flow of women out of STEM are long overdue. There is a pressing need for all types of organisations reliant on a STEM workforce to improve access to more flexible working, training schemes, leadership development, support networks and new types of parental leave for both the women and men to ensure that women don’t leave STEM before they have a chance to break through into leadership roles. When so much investment has already been made along the way to educate and train women in STEM can we really afford to lose so many skilled women at this pivotal point in their career?
I am heartened that having once left STEM myself, today I work alongside so many talented women as part of the Exploristics team. We currently have a 3:2 ratio of women to men employed in technical roles. As statisticians, statistical programmers, data scientists and software developers perhaps it is easier to stay the course in contrast to more lab-based research roles, particularly in the COVID-19 era. Nevertheless, we continue to strive to encourage equality, diversity and inclusion within the company and are supported in this by our partnerships with Diversity Mark, the WISE campaign and the NI WISE Hub Pulsar. I am also heartened that when I talk to my own daughter about women going into science, I can still be positive about the opportunities it holds for girls like her. I just hope that she won’t have to face the decision of choosing between having either a family or a career in STEM. I hope that she will be able to choose both.