Guest writer: “You can do it” – Time to act on it as a woman in STEM by Lauren Nelson

by | Sep 4, 2020 | Guest Writers | 0 comments

This post is written by Lauren Nelson, a final year PhD student at Newcastle University studying computational drug design. A lover of all things science, she has a MSc and BSc in Chemistry, she’s a STEM Ambassador, and she’s also a PhD tutor with The Brilliant Club. Lauren started the A Short Scientist blog in January 2018 to try and make science more understandable and accessible to all. She loves to draw so you’ll often see her sketches alongside articles on her blog, and she writes for lots of other science outlets too. Find out more about Lauren’s work on her blog, Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook pages.

No matter the organisation, women have been underrepresented in STEM careers for years. Data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) and WISE highlight that in 2018 22% of core UK STEM jobs were filled by women, despite the sector growing more rapidly than others. At the time this took the total number of women in UK STEM jobs to just over 900,000, two years later and we’ve hit 1 million (equating 24% of the workforce). It is amazing to be a part of the “1 of the million” campaign organised by WISE, but there is a long way to go. Whilst graduate representation in physical sciences (such as core subjects chemistry, physics and biology) is slowly rising (still a snail’s pace…), the number of women embarking on mathematical sciences and engineering/technology courses are stagnant, and numbers in computer science courses have declined. UCAS has shown that 35% of students studying core STEM subjects in higher education are female, so what happens after university?

Obviously, not everyone goes into the exact sector of their degree. There is a personal choice to be made; not everyone that has completed a science degree is interested in a career in science, and that’s fine, I like  travelling but no one forces me to  study geography. My worry is retention post-degree.

I come from a privileged background and have faced no real adversity in my science career to date, but during my PhD I realised just how important meeting other women in the field is. Four years ago I could not have dreamed of receiving an academic scholarship to study for my Master of Science degree, becoming an active science communicator and being paid to write articles such as this, winning prizes for my research talks, or organising and running an event for Women in STEM. All of these achievements were things I did not think I was capable of. All of these opportunities I applied for without any real hope of being considered a contender, but every time I thought, “what’s the worst that can happen?” and that was thanks to a Women in Chemistry event in 2019.

Me at said event in 2019 with my poster

After attending the event at the University of Nottingham with my friend, and only other female PhD student from my office, our mindsets were changed and so many doors opened for me. I wanted others to have the confidence to apply and have their voices heard, so when the Royal Society of Chemistry tweeted about funding for a Women in Science event, this was the push I needed. February 12th 2020 was IPUACs (the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry – to chemists it is also as dry as it sounds) annual Global Women’s Breakfast (GWB), the day after the International Day of Women and Girls in Science. With just 10 days to go, we had applied for and confirmed funding, secured 4 panel members and distributed sign up forms. Our panel members were four women from Newcastle University each at different stages of their STEM career: a member of the Equality, Diversity, and Inclusion (EDI) committee, a newly appointed university fellow, a postdoc and a member of the STEM outreach team. Each summarised their background and answered questions from the audience over our RSC-funded bacon sandwiches and coffee (and yes, gluten free and vegan options were also available).

Both men and women attended the event, and it was open to undergraduate students, postgrads and academic staff. People could pose their questions via the initial sign up form, anonymously on post-it notes during breaks, or in person to our panel. Many questions came from personal anecdotes of experiences attendees had had at university, whilst others were more broad questions about what the EDI committee is doing behind the scenes for example.

It gave attendees the opportunity to raise concerns or queries without judgement, led to informed discussion, and made us all realise that we were not alone. The stats highlight the drop off in women staying in science post-degree, and sometimes it is easy to forget there are others out there. While it is important to showcase our research at conferences or in work, and be represented properly in such places, it is also key to remember we don’t need to be in constant competition. Coming together to discuss problems or concerns is not a weakness; there is strength in numbers. 

Whilst it is of course incredibly important that we inspire the next generation of women and girls in STEM through our teaching, outreach and communication, it is just as important to work to improve the retention of women in STEM areas. I found the support from these events, and other online platforms involving women in STEM, quite overwhelming. When we have a common goal it is important to not only speak up and let others know what you are experiencing (because it is highly unlikely you are alone), but also collate your experiences, learn from them and approach those who can implement change with ways in which things can be improved, not just a list of complaints. So don’t just listen to “you can do it”, think “what is the worst that can happen” and then do it anyway because if you don’t, you will never know.