International Day of Women and Girls in Science
As we celebrate International Day of Women and Girls in Science this February, I am struck by some of the gender equality problems women still face in STEM. The United Nations, who promote the event, say that even in 2023 women are still under-represented in fields such as engineering and computer science. And those female scientists who do persist, tend to have shorter, less well-paid careers and are often passed over for promotion
By Dr Hilary Hamnett
Associate Professor in Forensic Science / Programme Leader,
"I’ve worked in STEM all my life"
"Firstly as a post-doc in a Physics department where women were few and far between, but later as a Forensic Toxicologist in various laboratories. Forensic Toxicologists try to find out if alcohol, drugs or poisons have played a role in a death or crime. It’s a fascinating and rewarding job, and one that is very much female dominated. In fact, women are well represented in the forensic science sector as a whole, flying in the face of some of those UN statistics. However, having lots of women in forensic science does not necessarily mean there are no gender equality issues: one of my final-year project students did a survey of female forensic scientists and found, among other things, that there is a gender pay gap, men are more likely to hold the senior and management roles in these laboratories, and men are more likely to be named as first author on forensic science journal articles than women.
My own experience working on drug-related death cases as a Forensic Toxicologist recently led to a position on the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (the ACMD), an independent government advisory committee. A lot of hard work has gone into making this committee more diverse, but I remain the only Council member to have ever gone on maternity leave. A statistic that gives a glimpse into its male-dominated past.
Our own forensic science programmes at the University of Lincoln are female dominated, but other courses struggle to recruit enough women students, leading to more men in those workplaces. Like many women working in science who take an interest in gender equality, outreach with school-age girls has been key to recruiting more of them into STEM. The importance of role models is well understood, but this does put the burden largely onto female scientists to redress the gender balance, something that New Zealand scientist Professor Nicola Gaston pointed out in her book Why Science is Sexist. There have also been some high-profile examples of careless talk by renowned male scientists effortlessly undoing a lot of this hard outreach work by women.
I also wonder if the subliminal messages about who can work in STEM start much earlier than school. As the mum of a two-year-old, it’s remarkable to see how most toddlers are natural scientists and investigators, but somewhere along the line, girls are put off science. It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly when this happens – some toys and books are still depressingly gendered, with things for aspiring engineers and mechanics often aimed at boys, and those associated with childcare and cooking often aimed at girls. Is it any wonder that, according to the organisation Inspiring the Future, by the age of six, children already classify jobs by gender and 75% of women end up working in one of the five Cs: catering, caring, cashiering, cleaning or clerical? I have been trying to subvert this for many years at Christmas when I donate a wrapped gift for low-income families to a local charity. The charity asks donors to gender the gifts, so every year I wrap up a new children’s chemistry set with a ‘girl’ label.
We need more women in STEM, not just to make the stats look better, but because the field is missing out on many excellent scientists, engineers and researchers. But as forensic science shows, having more women is only the first step. Even in female-dominated fields there is still much work to do on pay, recognition and promotion, and the burden of driving change needs to be taken off women themselves".
- Barbaro, Women in Forensics: An international overview, Forensic Science International: Synergy, 1: 137–139, 2019.
- Dawley et al., Women, Forensic Science, and STEM: An Initial Inquiry, Forensic Science Policy & Management, 5: 70–75, 2014.