Who Says Girls Aren't 'Meant' to Like Science?

11/08/2016 13:42 | Updated 11 August 2016

I always knew that I would be a scientist. As a child I loved exploring the world around me; I was fascinated by fossils and had a voracious appetite for any science books, documentaries or experiments.

Yet despite this instinctive fascination and curiosity, I was acutely aware, even at a young age (and in the 90s no less!) of the social norms which told me that girls weren't 'meant' to like science. I knew, without any direct challenge, that rather than prehistoric creatures, my toys should have been dolls, and that science was something boys were good at. Indeed, for young girls and women these unspoken obstacles are just as present, and in many ways more difficult to overcome, than any explicit discouragement.

Now, as a young, female, early career researcher I still sometimes feel like a rare breed - I made it through, thanks in no small part to some fantastic teachers - however, the road to being a scientist, and an academic scientist especially, is hard.

Many other women like me have already turned away from their love of science. The so- called 'leaky pipeline', where women step back from science at key transition points from education through to the workplace, means that I am now a woman in a predominately male industry. Already, the next generation of female scientists are disadvantaged - by a lack of role models, unequal gender representation on academic boards and by conditions unique to success in the sciences.

As in all careers, the moment this becomes most apparent is at the meeting of two life changing transitions: the decision to become a parent, and the moment you take that significant step in your career - usually around the late 20s or early 30s. Yet this pivotal moment is complicated for academic scientists by the fact that the move from a supported role into independent research means that you must be prepared to move, both within the UK and overseas, every few years as research projects evolve and new opportunities arise.

That's why, for me, being awarded a UNESCO-L'Oréal For Women in Science Fellowship has come at an important time. It's a flexible programme so I'm able to put my £15,000 Fellowship not only towards scientific equipment, trips to conferences and materials, but also towards childcare. Without this award, I would be under significant pressure as a care provider and scientist.

Businesses like L'Oréal are playing a critical role in supporting women to achieve their full potential in science. The For Women in Science fellowship will allow me to invest in my research and professional development, but it crucially demonstrates the difference which effective funding for childcare costs can make to female scientists. The L'Oréal manifesto (seen here) is also an important public endorsement of women scientists and is a fantastic demonstration of the vision which should guide us all in improving the representation of women in science.

From my own experience, I especially think that if we are to achieve this, universities could lead by example by taking action to ensure that their passionate and talented science students, of any gender, stay in the sector and thrive, which will be a hard sell given the massive drop off in UK science students as they enter the workplace. In practice this will mean more proactive engagement with employers, so undergraduates are aware of the fantastic opportunities available, and more inbuilt internships to undergraduate degrees.

I also think it's important that young girls and boys are encouraged to play with a broad range of toys which stimulate many skills, and that both are equally given the opportunity to explore their surroundings. We can also more directly inspire interest in science by providing better schools funding and investment in career services just ahead of options at GCSE level, so young people know about the amazing opportunities which lie ahead.

And lastly, throughout all academic study, whether at school, college or university, equal standards, expectations and opportunities should be maintained, and most importantly, we need to respond robustly to any discrimination when we see it.

Women and girls have what it takes to succeed in science. But UK social expectations and workplaces need to keep up. For change to occur, and for women to take -up and remain in the sciences, today's fantastic academic opportunities need to be matched with structural change at a societal, academic and commercial level.