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Women in Science and the impact of social media

Hilary J Anderson

Hilary Jane Anderson is a PhD Student based at the Centre for Cell Engineering at the University of Glasgow. Following a lecture on gender bias, Hilary was moved to share her experience and in this blog post, explores the inequality that still exists between the genders in STEM and the impact social media has on highlighting and addressing the challenges faced, head on.

 

It occurred to me while at the cinema recently how lucky I am to do my job. The film that triggered this epiphany was "Suffragette". I watched as women from all ages and backgrounds fought for the right to vote, something most of us probably don’t consider at the polling station. This achievement was a crucial step in the fight for equality and occurred nearly a century ago. But have things changed? Does inequality between the genders still exist?

Unfortunately the answer is yes. Even now there are shocking examples of inequality; one of the most disturbing is the case of Malala Yousafzai. Malala was shot in the head on her way school one day. The attack happened as she was an advocate for girl’s rights and the right to an education. I have never considered being denied an education but what if I lived in a country where girls are not educated or persecuted for learning? For these women a PhD is inconceivable.

The plight of women in science has been particularly newsworthy this year due to the media campaign #distractinglysexy. This campaign was started as a result of a derogatory comment regarding female researchers. Social media was subsequently filled with images of women in the lab and in the field which I hope inspired a new generation of girls to do a job that they may not have even considered. I’m sure Mrs Pankhurst would have been proud!

To answer the questions on gender bias, we sought help from two important voices in the gender equality arena. First Dr Jennifer Logue, the Athena Swan coordinator for MVLS and Alice Gray, a science graduate and STEMM blogger recently recognised in the BBC’s 100 most influential women in 2015.

When I was at school, I chose science because I had an inspiring teacher, but also because I was fascinated by biology. Science wasn’t advertised through social media but I personally didn’t feel that I could not chose science as a career which unfortunately other young girls may feel.

Alice Gray explains why STEM may be perceived to be exclusive to men: “Science has been dominated for centuries by men and still 70% of the world’s population associate being a scientist with being a man. It is a complicated issue that is heavily intertwined with gender stereotypes and with the perceived idea of women's abilities in science and maths…[which] can come in the forms of unconscious bias. For generations, women have been stereotyped as being intellectually inferior or incompatible with subjects like maths and physics.”

Obviously, many women have overcome this attitude and pursued a career in STEM. The next generation will hopefully be enticed into the field by the powerful message carried in social media. But has social media had an impact? Jennifer feels that it has been one of the ways to encourage women into the field, “ensuring women are getting access and picking science in school and praised for doing science in school and feel comfortable in applying for engineering”.

Alice adds that social media can also be a platform to show that sexism still exists “It is vital to discuss these issues, as research has shown that if women are made aware of the problems they will face as women in STEM, they will be less likely to be effected by them and leave these industries. Therefore, social media is a crucial resource in generating a global conversation, and encouraging women in STEM from all over the world to contribute”.

Indeed there has been a nationwide push to encourage more of the population to take up science, resulting in more people in postgraduate positions. The problem stems from the career pipeline and the need for universities to be more transparent when it comes to career progression.

Jennifer describes this as a “getting on” rather than a “getting in” problem. However it mostly affects women, with fewer women employed from grade 8 stage. In her opinion, this could be due to a strong “unconscious bias” or that women seek a job with more stability, without the need to travel and leave their family behind or worry about childcare. Furthermore maternity leave is an issue, lack of adaptability by universities means that there is not enough support for women who want to return to their research. This is hugely detrimental to an academic as it affects everything from taking on PhD students to applying for grants, resulting in research being delayed.

This is where the Athena Swan program is beneficial; it was established to advance the careers of women in all STEM subjects. This year Jennifer has organised a series of lecture blocks that discuss the issues that (typically) women face as they progress through their research career. For those who would ask why we need to talk about this Jennifer would argue “There is nothing sexist or discriminatory about having a meeting around women’s issues in research because there is an issue...We have to say it is unacceptable”. Hopefully through this process we can fix the “getting on” problem that will allow women the option to stay in science rather than feeling their chosen field cannot support their work life balance.

As women, we also need to change. Jennifer highlighted that as women we are often much less comfortable putting ourselves forward, “less likely to apply…but far more likely to get it”. We need to start saying we CAN, only then we will be on par with our male colleagues.

In my opinion, everyone needs to be aware that women are capable to work in science. We may not know what we want for the future, but it I would hate to think that my chosen field will not allow me to progress. It is wrong that at this early stage of my career that I have doubt in my profession rather than my own abilities to advance.

If there are women reading this thinking “why would I want to do a career in STEM? All that work to leave after PhD?” Even though I may find myself in this position I would still say I am thoroughly enjoying my PhD. Prior to postgraduate education, I had little confidence. During my masters and PhD I have found that I have overcome this and developed a new skill set. Working individually allows you to manage your time and experiments, speaking at conferences and extracurricular events improves networking and communication. And when experiments fail, you become more determined, resilient and resourceful. These are skills that can be transferred to other professions if necessary. Learning has always been my passion, my PhD has allowed me this.

 

Links

The University of Glasgow - Centre for Cell Engineering

Athena SWAN - Equality Charter

 


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