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Comet on 17 November – NavCam Copyright ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM – CC BY-SA IGO 3.0

Women in STEM: it shouldn’t be rocket science. And yet it is

When I met my partner of the last 25 years, in the registration queue on our first day as undergraduates, she was a biochemist with dreams of becoming a forensic scientist. Half of her year group were women.

I had grown up alongside girls and young women who excelled in maths and sciences, and who went on to study these subjects at university. (Physics, it should be said, was notably not among their interests.)

It’s tempting to believe, then, that somehow women found science subjects more attractive in the 1980s than they do now. But that’s a silly piece of nostalgia – as silly as wanting to return us to the era of Dixon of Dock Green, the fictional copper who once noted “if I arrested every bloke in Dock Green who clocked his wife, I’d be working overtime”.

The reality, for my partner, was that even in the late ‘80s, problem-solving and detective work in a lab had given way to the drudgery of pressing buttons on machines. Over and over again.

She graduated and then, not too many years later, had an MA in art history under her belt. I can’t think of one of the girls and young women in my circle of friends who continued a career in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) after uni.

Meanwhile, two of my closest male friends went on to achieve doctorates and are now teaching sciences at universities.

In January this year the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee reported on women in STEM careers, finding that “only 17 per cent of STEM professors are women”. The report said: “Emphasis is often placed on inspiring young girls to choose science, which is commendable, but such efforts are wasted if women are subsequently disproportionately disadvantaged in scientific careers compared to men.”

Role models are great. You might want to be the next Marie Curie or – with the triumph of the Rosetta space mission reminding us of the limitless potential of human endeavour – you might be inspired by Professor Monica Grady. Rosetta also reminded us, though, that a STEM workplace is not necessarily going to be the most welcoming of environments for women.

The reaction to Rosetta scientist Dr Matt Taylor’s tasteless shirt was not, as the Telegraph screamed, “the day political correctness officially went mad“.

The fact is that the UK needs women in STEM if it is going to keep competing on the global stage. The Commons committee’s report notes that “increasing women’s participation in the UK labour market could be worth between £15 billion and £23 billion, with STEM accounting for at least £2 billion of this”.

Dear Daily Telegraph: if you’d like Britain to be competitive, perhaps you’d like to re-think your argument, and consider more deeply the ways in which there’s a nudge backward for every step that women take towards greater representation in STEM careers.

The Guardian, incidentally, critiques the feminist reaction to THAT shirt here. It calls for feminists to stay focused on the cultural and  institutional changes that are needed, instead of being a hair-trigger twitch away from taking offence and vilifying the individuals who give it.

The Your Life campaign, launched by the Government this month, showcases the opportunities that young men and women can seize by developing their knowledge of maths and sciences.

Launching the campaign, education secretary Nicky Morgan said: “At A level, we now have 1000 more girls studying physics every year – and 2000 more girls studying maths – compared to 2010. The proportion of A level entries which were in biology, chemistry and physics has increased, too. But it’s clear that more needs to be done – that’s why I’m so pleased that Your Life, and supporters from the government and the education, business and technology sectors, have come together to help open young people’s eyes to what studying STEM subjects could mean for their future.“

Certainly, campaigns like this can be helpful, but they need to be about more than just awareness. Women in Science and Engineering (WISE) aims to inspire girls and young women while also helping businesses to improve their attitudes to gender diversity in their workplaces.

Because diverse workplaces are better workplaces.

There is much of that improvement to be done. The technology sector is still particularly toxic for women.

What the UK STEM sectors need, then, is not only more women – though that will naturally and eventually lead to the kind of generation-by-generation change that finally sent Dixon of Dock Green the way of all dinosaurs.

That won’t be soon enough for the women who want to be rocket scientists now, and help in a new UK-led mission to put a lander on the moon.

The Guardian, in talking about Matt Taylor’s awful shirt, stressed: “Feminists have a proud history of taking state institutions and corporations to task.”

Those are, perhaps, the women that STEM needs most. It needs them, and men who don’t wear offensive shirts.
EDIT 23/11/2014

For more on ShirtStorm, sexism in STEM and attitudes to women in gaming, see this from Women in Astronomy. The woman who submitted it felt the need to remain anonymous, which speaks sad and worrying volumes.

EDIT 25/11/2014

This news from October: A University of Portsmouth astronomer has won the Women of the Future Science award on the very same day that she took part in the BBC’s 100 Woman — a day of debates, discussions, and live broadcasts at the BBC’s Broadcasting House organised by and for inspiring women around the world.

Read the full story at

Posted by Nicholas Manthorpe on Tue, 31 Jan 2017

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Nick was a reporter for the Eastern Daily Press and its sister weekly titles in Norfolk and Waveney, then served as Media Officer for North Norfolk District Council for 13 years. He now works as a writer and PR and media relations consultant. He is a member of the Chartered Institute of Public Relations, an associate member of the Chartered Management Institute and a member of East Anglian Writers.

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