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Why I Am Not Surprised That 54% of Us Cannot Name a Female Scientist

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As a child I suffered from what I now call Marie Curie syndrome - the inability to name more than one female scientist or engineer. This was a real handicap, as I knew I wanted to be a scientist or an engineer, and needed some example to give those who told me that girls couldn't do science.

When I discovered Hypatia hanging in the Laing Art Gallery I was thrilled. The fact that she was shown naked and about to be torn apart by an Alexandrian mob for daring to practise mathematics was not encouraging, it's true, but at least she did increase by 100% my female STEM role models.

So I am not surprised by this week's YouGov poll that showed that 54% of us cannot name a single female engineer or scientist and of those who can, 68% plumped for Marie Curie. The fact that 12% named Isambard Kingdom Brunel is more surprising and I have yet to figure out what it might mean.

What is definitely positive is the Science_grrl report which was launched this week to accompany the poll.

In 1984 when I started studying electrical engineering at Imperial College 12% of engineering students were female. 30 years later, that figure has not improved at all. Britain is specially bad at attracting and retaining girls and women in STEM, we have the lowest proportion of female professional engineers in Europe at 5.5% and only 1% of electricians are women. In many emerging markets such as China, India and Nigeria, parents want their daughters to grow up to be engineers but here it is still seen very much as a male profession.

And whilst the life sciences have had more success in attracting girls to university, the upper echelons still remain very male dominated.

Of course over the years there have been many different and sometimes competing initiatives to address the gender imbalance.

What I think is new now is a broader recognition that, as the report emphasises, it is not only a matter of social justice, it's a question of UK competitiveness - excluding half our population from the technical skills pool and limiting our innovation to the imaginations of one narrow demographic. As well as being overwhelmingly male STEM professionals are much more likely to be white and middle class than the population as a whole.

The report sets out the need to view every aspect of science and engineering through a gender lens because, as the authors put it: "our society isn't neutral it is highly gendered, the reasons these hurdles are invisible is that they are so deeply embedded. We must look through both eyes to detect the unconscious biases that permeate our society..."

That recognition that the 'gender blind' approach is part of what hasn't been working for the last few decades is a key step forward. Seeing the world through a gender lens is not about discriminating in favour of women, it's about taking on a perspective that enables us not to discriminate in favour of men. Whilst the last Labour Government did set up the UK Resource Centre for women to focus on women in STEM, that was not matched by a similar focus within industry or academia. As a woman engineer I learnt to smell diversity lip service at twenty paces and there was an awful lot of it about.

The report makes eleven recommendations from leadership on gender equality to unifying the complex STEM ecosystem. It identifies key owners, mainly across Government, for each recommendation and I look forward to the Government's response.

There is good work going on - the Royal Academy of Engineering's 'How many engineers does it take to make a tin of baked beans' is a great new resource (warning includes photo of me as a toddler), the Royal Society Wikipedia edit-a-thons aim to blow more female STEM trumpets and Engineering UK's Big Bang celebrates science and engineering for everyone.

But on the negative size we have the increasing pinkification of girlhood and gender segregation of toys, sexualisation of young women the everyday sexism experienced by girls and women and the rise of neurotrash, the often publicly funded research which is presented as proving that male and female brains are just wired differently (they aren't).

So I welcome Vince Cable's recent strong line on the subject, Tory MP Peter Luff working with Sciencegrrl on this report and the vigourous campaigns of organisations such as Let Toys Be Toys, Pinkstinks[10], and Everydaysexism[11].

The problem with trying build a gender neutral environment for girls and boys to make their own career choices is that we have no real idea what it would look like. The Science_grrl report is an important step forward in that journey.

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