Taking to Our Soapboxes to Tackle Gender Inequality in Science, and Beyond

27/05/2016 15:11 | Updated 28 May 2017

Twenty years ago or so, I decided to embark on a journey to become a scientist. I signed up to study biology at university together with over 1,000 students, more than half of whom were girls. At that point in my life, I was regularly interacting with a culturally and socio-economically diverse group of people, who allowed me to appreciate issues from a variety of points of views. Nowadays, however, most of my scientific interactions are with men from very similar cultural and socio-economic backgrounds.

So where did all that diversity go, and why wasn't it possible to retain it? In particular, how come I began my scientific studies surrounded by women, yet these days regularly find myself being the sole woman presenting my work at scientific workshops? These are some of the questions that have been playing on my mind for years, and as a typical scientist, I have spent a lot of time reading about issues relating to women in science to find answers to my questions.

I originally blamed this situation on the 'wackiness' of the scientific community and its inability to cope with more women being given the chance to have an education: after all, we are talking about a community where eminent scientists will often get more credit than a comparatively unknown researcher, even if their work is similar; a community where systematic repression and denial of the contribution of woman scientists in research has been well-documented; a community where sexism is still very much alive and kicking. To navigate discussions with acquaintances blaming it all on girls being less apt to do science, I also read many studies exploring differences in cognitive skills between men and women - and was relieved to discover that these arguments were simply going nowhere.

But the more I read, the more I realised that the roots of the problems preventing the emergence of a more diverse scientific community are actually in wider society itself. We live in a society where parents are disproportionately encouraging their sons over their daughters to pursue a career as an engineer or a scientist, and where kids are drawing scientists as men. The career cost of parenthood is still disproportionately carried by women around the world, with, for example, few working men opting for shared parental leave in the UK despite the recent legislative changes. Sexism is not just found in science: it's in sport; in the entertainment industry; in business; on social media; it's literally everywhere.

I used to think that the scientific community, with its culture and idiosyncrasies, was the problem: I now think of it as part of the solution. This community in fact represents a fantastic microcosm to study some of the fundamental issues (e.g. unconscious bias, cultural expectations of gender roles) that drive gender inequalities worldwide. It's full of people continuously developing ingenious transferable solutions (such as the Athena SWAN charter) to advance the gender equality agenda. It's also full of people who eschew the status quo, instead pushing relentlessly for change.

I have met many of these people over the past six years, as part of my journey with Soapbox Science. An initiative I co-founded in 2011 with my then-ZSL colleague Dr Seirian Sumner, Soapbox Science aims to bring cutting-edge science to the streets of the UK, improving the visibility of female scientists and promoting equality in science careers. This Saturday 28 May, some of these incredible voices will take to their soapboxes on London's SouthBank to spread the word about their work and challenge current stereotypes about who scientists are. I hope many of you will take the opportunity to come and meet them there.

Admittedly, the pace of change is slow and there will be limits to what can be achieved by the scientific community across society in general. But so far that community is leading the way, and I couldn't be prouder to be part of it.