Young women are under-represented in science at University level in the UK, especially in Physical Sciences, Maths and Engineering (STEM). Biological Sciences and Medicine, though, have become more equal. For the STEM subjects the figures aren’t too surprising because students are often dropping these subjects at an earlier stage. For example, more than 40% of state schools have no girls in Physics in years 12 and 13 (Institute of Physics). Compared to many other countries (in Eastern Europe and China, for example) in the UK there can be lots of assumptions made about girls from a very early age. Girls can pick up messages that girls “don’t do science” or as they start to choose subjects, the way these subjects are portrayed can make them feel “engineering isn’t for me” and yet what is being portrayed in only one part of a whole range of types of activities in the subject. It is not just that we think studying science is for a career in science only. We need many more people to understand science, maths and the scientific approach whatever their job. I studied Natural Sciences myself at Cambridge. I started on a research track but decided early on that my skills were with people and organisations. I had a fascinating career in health sciences, for example as Regional Director of the NHS for the South East of England. I then moved and became Chief Executive of Oxfam, travelling the world to support poor people to get themselves out of poverty or to provide humanitarian aid. Never for one moment did I regret doing science at University. The way it makes me look at evidence was so important in all my roles and the knowledge I had of science allowed me to understand so much more of what was happening in clinical care when I worked on health issues.
In this blog, we want to help by giving young women interested in science a voice and also getting their slightly older peers to describe what work in science is like and to share the excitement and intriguing questions their work raises. We want to encourage young women mainly ages 14-20 to see the opportunities and excitement of being in science.
This is the first post of a year-long discussion, with an entry each week. Each 4 weeks will include a post from a woman scientist about her work and her passion for it; one describing some current news and research; a student in a STEM subject from Murray Edwards College describing what it is like to study science in Cambridge; and a school student who wants to contribute to the debate herself. So “go for it” young women, let’s hear what you have to say about science.
Barbara Stocking President
Murray Edwards College May 2015