Expanding the roles of women in STEM

Women in STEMThe fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), have traditionally attracted more male than female scholars on all academic levels. The disparity of interests between genders can be seen as early as secondary school. The resulting trend is, unsurprisingly, reflected in university applications – STEM disciplines tend to be dominated by male applicants. Additionally, mobile students in STEM fields are far more likely to be male. Today’s blog, from scientist Joanna Bagniewska, explores the reasons female students lose interest in the STEM fields and shares some optimistic insight into how some organisations are working to address this trend. 

Losing interest at an early age

A study conducted in February this year showed that female students report a significant dip in the enjoyment of STEM subjects as they enter teenage years: while half of surveyed girls aged 7-11 considered Maths and Computer Science enjoyable and fun, this proportion dropped to 31% and 36% respectively in respondents aged 11-14. The above finding is coupled with the fact that more than half of teachers (57%) and parents (52%) admit to having made gender stereotypes in relation to STEM.

At university level, even in STEM subjects with a high intake of female undergraduates, there is a concern with retention of students, and ensuring that they do not drop out at any stage of their career. While the number of women in subjects such as biological sciences is high at an undergraduate stage, the proportion decreases at each progression point – postgraduate, postdoctoral, lecturer – leaving very few females at the professorial level.

Institutional biases or individual burdens?

Many explanations have been put forward to account for this disproportion – including institutional biases, implicit and direct discrimination, lack of role models or lack of confidence in the women themselves. However, research published in August shows that women are in fact more resilient than one might expect. Factors such as high school academic preparation, faculty gender ratio, or performance in the core subjects appear to have an equal effect on males and females, in terms of the risk of switching majors. Stereotyping a field as ‘masculine’ also seems to have no profound effect on the women in it. However, while individual factors appear to have no effect, their combination – particularly low grades, gender composition of class and external stereotyping signals – is a strong enough hit to drive women to drop out. It might therefore be worth investigating the ways of making the external environment a bit more ‘female friendly’ on an institutional level.

Creating a female-friendly field

One way of addressing gender inequality in British institutions is the Athena SWAN (Scientific Women’s Academic Network) charter. Founded in 2005, it recognises and celebrates examples of good practice towards the advancement of gender equality in higher education and research. Some of the recognised actions include outreach and mentoring programmes, reducing bias in recruitment, devising flexible and part-time working schemes which ensure career progression or providing better access to childcare. Initially, the programme was limited to STEM subjects; currently it has expanded to include other disciplines.

Similarly, mobility schemes such as the Marie Sklodowska-Curie Fellowship allow women to actively pursue an international career in science. Traditionally, the mobility of female researchers has been lower than that of their male peers, as the career progression of women has often been adjusted to accommodate the needs of the family. However currently, in dual-career households, it is often the higher-earning partner who dictates the mobility strategy. Providing financial independence and promoting equal pay leads female scientists towards a much more international professional life.

We are at a point in history when the tables are turning – women are finding themselves encouraged, supported, and are suddenly beginning to grasp at the opportunities that have thus far been less accessible to them. A diversity of backgrounds, beliefs and opinions is an important contribution to the development of any field – as is retaining the potential of highly qualified employees.

Joanna Bagniewska is a Zoologist, Science Communicator and Teaching Fellow at the University of Reading in the UK. 


We’re not science automatons – we’re people: Meet Joanna Bagniewska

My interview for the Soapbox Science blog.

Dr Joanna Bagniewska is a zoologist working as a teaching fellow at Reading University’s School of Biological Sciences. Her research interests encompass ecology and conservation biology, particularly the subject of invasive species. She is a very keen science communicator – she won FameLab Poland, gave a talk at TEDxWarsaw, and she even does science stand-up comedy.  Meet Joanna in our Reading event, where she’ll be discussing “How Disney & Science don’t always go hand in hand”.

SS: Joanna, how did you get to your current position?

JB: While completing my undergraduate in Biology at Jacobs University in Bremen, Germany, I did an internship with the University of New South Wales. I spent two months in Australia’s Snowy Mountains examining road ecology – i.e. the impact of roads on the surrounding wildlife. I found the subject absolutely fascinating, and from that point onwards I knew that I wanted to research ecology and conservation biology. To get more international experience, I decided to spend a semester abroad at Rice University in Texas, where I obtained a lot of hands-on experience in herpetology and animal behaviour. After completing my undergraduate degree, I went on to obtain my MSc from Oxford University; my research focused on the methods used for monitoring South African canid species, such as jackals and foxes. I then stayed at Oxford for my doctorate, which examined the behavioural ecology of the American mink in the UK. After graduating, I worked for a start-up company for a few months, and then went on to be a lecturer at Nottingham Trent University. Eventually I moved back to West Midlands to take the post of a teaching fellow at Reading University’s School of Biological Sciences.

Continue reading We’re not science automatons – we’re people: Meet Joanna Bagniewska

Reading town centre to host Speaker’s Corner style science talks

An advert for Soapbox Science on getreading.co.uk

Take a look at some of these fascinating facts you could learn about at the Reading town centre event

Would you let a zoologist tell you the truth about the animals in Disney films? Warning: you might not be able to watch them in the same way ever again.

That’s what The University of Reading’s Dr Joanna Bagniewska will be doing at a Soapbox Science event at Reading town centre next weekend.

She will be telling children how Baloo from The Jungle Book isn’t as cuddly as he seems, and that Simba and Nala from The Lion King could actually be brother and sister – yeah, our minds are blown too.

The talk titled, How Disney and Science don’t always go hand in hand, is just one of the events sharing weird and wonderful facts at the science takeover in Reading on Saturday, July 9.

Bringing together professors from an array of environmental fields, the aim of the day is to promote female scientists who will be talking to audiences about some of the projects and ideas they have worked on.

Following the format of London Hyde Park’s Speaker’s Corner, the talks will run from midday to 3pm in Broad Street outside Sainsbury’s.

For now, take a look at these fascinating facts – just some of things you can discover on the day

  1. Overflows of untreated sewage into the River Thames adds up to tens of millions of tonnes every year. Each year, enough sewage discharges into the River Thames to fill the Albert Hall 450 times over.
  2. The levels of drug materials found in rivers are used to estimate the amount of drugs consumed in towns and cities.
  3. Mammals with large brains are more vulnerable to extinction. Big brains may help humans, but are bad news for other mammals.
  4. Palm oil is found in about 50 per cent of all packaged supermarket products, from your peanut butter to your soap.
  5. 14 out of the 18 different species of bat species found in the UK have been recorded in Berkshire and South Buckinghamshire.
There are currently 18 species of bat living in the UK.

The programme for the day:

  • Dr. Emily Lines, Queen Mary University of London – Forecasting the future of forests
  • Ms Amanda Zillig, Atkins – What lies beneath, exposing contaminated land risks in exposed ground
  • Dr Joanna Bagniewska, University of Reading – How Disney and Science don’t always go hand in hand
  • Ms Betty Flora Nakiru, University of Sussex – Climate change and drought, how to maximise usage of limited water
  • Ms Patricia Tumwine, Arup – You Poo Toom, an introduction to the Thames Tideway Tunnel Project
  • Kathryn Woolley, Hilson Moran – How I create air pollution
  • Dr Victoria Hilborne, London South Bank University – Contamination of water with drugs and their metabolites
  • Ms Kirstie Scott, University College London – Environmental forensics: fighting crime with mud, bugs and plants!
  • Dr Manuela Gonzalez-Suarez, University of Reading The problems of having a big brain and other things that increase extinction risk
  • Dr Lydia Cole, University of Oxford – Peanut butter, palm oil and peat
  • Ms Erika Degani University of Reading – Food security: how can biodiversity help?
  • Kate Harrington, Arup – Bringing wildlife into cities, an ecologists approach to development

Open season for female scientists

My post on the Soapbox Science blog

Because I’m a zoologist working in a rather gender-balanced and female-friendly environment, I have for a long time thought that the discrimination of women in STEM is a largely exaggerated problem. But then it hit me with the force of a charging elephant (the one that’s in the room).

Continue reading Open season for female scientists