Being a Female STEM Scientist

For International Day of the Girl (or perhaps International Girls’ Day) and in recognition of Ada Lovelace day earlier this week, I will try to let you know how I feel to be a woman in STEM and give my opinion on a question that follows STEM around like lost sheep: why are there still fewer women than men in STEM subjects?

How does it feel to be a woman in STEM?

I find this question a bit of a strange one as not many of us can compare the difference in male and female experiences from the same point of view. There are fundamentally the same pressures on us all academically and our achievements should reflect the work each of us does. I work in a lab with approximately even numbers of men and women, so I don’t feel as though I’ve overcome any sort of gender-based barrier to have joined this lab. Having said this, almost all of the PhD supervisors I was given the opportunity of working with are male. Personally, I don’t feel this limits my options at all, because there are many examples of women working their way to these positions, the same as men. Though because of the male-heavy environment, I think that a lot of women may need greater encouragement from those around them to achieve their goals. The way in which STEM needs to balance this is by offering universal support so everyone believes they deserve a position in the same way as the other applicants. Maybe this also offers one answer my other question.

The relative lack of these female role models makes STEM and science in general look as though it is a “man’s game”.

Why are there still fewer women than men in STEM subjects?

Of the fourteen students on the same PhD course as me, I am one of four women. A question to ask here is does this reflect the quantity of applications from women or the quality of their applications? I am reliably informed that it is the former rather than the latter, but either way this is disappointing.

In respect to quantity, according to universities UK (sourced from HESA), in 2014-15 there were 408,225 undergraduates studying STEM subjects (excluding medicine and dentistry) with 41% of these being female students. This figure is dramatically changed to 54% female students when engineering and mathematics are removed from the equations. So herein lays the first problem, one we all know about and have been reminded of every time university guides come out, from a young(ish) age women simply aren’t getting involved in STEM as regularly as men. Let’s have a look at these figures for post-graduates, since that was the basis of my point. Of 100,475 post-graduates in STEM in 2014-15, 42% were female and excluding engineering and maths once again shows an increase in female participation to 56% of 54,455 students. So the pattern is reflected in post graduate courses as well. Four out of fourteen is a meagre 29%; so perhaps, as an engineering-related discipline, synthetic biology is repelling girls in the same ways that engineering in itself does – only 23% of post-graduates in engineering were female in 2014-15.

Not surprisingly, these figures translate through to the number of academic staff at UK institutions with 45% being female. The number of female professors has increased by 42% – where male professors increased by 6.5% in the same time – between 2009-10 and 2015-16, which is encouraging but females are still underrepresented at professor level. Similarly, the distribution of pay was vastly different for women and men in 2014-15 with male academic staff occupying almost 72% of the roles with salaries over £58,172. Maybe this statistic alone puts women off joining STEM academia.

I don’t feel as though any hurdles to my progress have been due to gender but most importantly, I do feel as though I belong in STEM.

The final reason I will mention that affects women joining STEM disciplines is the lack of role models. I touched on this in my answer to the previous question when I said women need further encouragement to get into academia in STEM. Despite the examples of female professors across the world, the relative lack of these female role models makes STEM and science in general look as though it is a “man’s game”. This is being overcome gradually by events such as Ada Lovelace day, as well as others, to celebrate the contributions of women in STEM, but perhaps more needs to be done to make STEM more welcoming towards younger female scientists.

Final words

Whatever the reasons women are underrepresented in STEM, it is widely accepted that teams of mixed genders, background and experience perform best in problem solving tasks, so more women need to keep getting involved in STEM. Synthetic biology is already multi-disciplinary with collaborations between labs across the world, so a gender balance will continue to improve projects in the field – I can find no data on gender of researchers in synthetic biology, so this may already be the case, but from my limited experience I can say it is not.

I enjoy researching in synthetic biology because of the dynamism of the field and its fast moving nature. I don’t feel as though any hurdles to my progress have been due to gender but most importantly, I do feel as though I belong in STEM. To anyone (but especially women and girls) who are thinking about getting involved in STEM subjects and finding it daunting: science is just the pursuit of knowledge we didn’t have before. So just because something hasn’t been achieved yet, it’s just a matter of time before someone is the first to achieve it. Why couldn’t it be you?

Your best and wisest refuge from all troubles is in your science

– Ada Lovelace

Get involved!

Here at BiobyDesign, we would love to hear comments about how we can help encourage women and girls to get into science (as well as everyone else) so please reply to this article or email us your suggestions!


Statistics for this article were obtained from Universities UK (2014-15 data and 2016 data)

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