Inspiring future women in science

In preparation for the upcoming 2016 International Women’s Day we have created a series of online materials to showcase some of our fantastic female scientists and to encourage young women to consider a career in science.

More women than ever are working in jobs related to science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM), according to UK government figures from last summer. Yet women still only hold 14% of STEM-related occupations.

So why is this?

The picture from schools is mainly positive. At GCSE last year, there was a 3% increase in the proportion of girls taking science compared to 2014 and girls continue to outnumber boys in maths and science, with similar numbers of girls and boys taking biology, physics and chemistry. What’s more, girls attain more A*-C grades than boys in all but three of the sixteen STEM categories.

At A-level girls continue to attain more A* and A grades in physics, maths, chemistry and biology.

At degree level, the numbers look encouraging. Women made up the majority (51%) of all those who graduated with a STEM degree in 2015. Thirty nine percent of all the women who graduated last year had a STEM degree.

It’s clear that women have the talent, yet many are still not choosing STEM-related jobs. Are cultural forces still standing in the way?

An international report in March last year found that while education systems have made major strides to close gender gaps in student performance, girls and boys remain deeply divided in career choices, which are being made much earlier than commonly thought.

The report by the Organisation for Economic and Cooperative Development (OECD) says that gender bias – conscious and unconscious – among parents, teachers and employers is partly responsible. What’s needed, the report concludes, is a concerted effort by parents, teachers and employers to open women’s minds to their abilities and future careers.

Achieving a better gender balance is vital

Studies have found that employees in organisations with gender balance in their management teams have higher job satisfaction than those organisations with only male managers. In science, research is increasingly done by teams. Involving more women can enrich the creativity and insight of research groups.

Women can look at problems differently, analysts say, and including more women in research will increase the range of innovations and breakthroughs; psychologists have also found that mixed groups do a better job of solving cognitive problems than single-sex groups.

The John Innes Centre aims to inspire girls to become the scientists and engineers of the future

One way to do this is to show the sheer diversity of possible careers, and how rewarding and exciting these careers can be. Last April, the John Innes Centre hosted the first Women of the Future Conference, where students from twenty local schools heard inspirational talks from high-profile women in science, and met role models at various stages of their careers.

Following the success of this conference, John Innes Centre scientist Samantha Fox and Principal of Flegg High School, Simon Fox, created the Youth STEMM Award (the extra M stands for medicine), initially for Norfolk schoolgirls aged 14-16. Functioning in a similar way to Duke of Edinburgh awards, but focused on demonstrating scientific capability, participants must complete a certain number of hours in four key areas, for example, by helping to run a science lesson for younger children. The scheme allows students to interact with scientists and learn more about STEMM career opportunities.

The John Innes Centre also recognises how important it is to make STEM careers more appealing to women

We were the first Research Institute in the UK to win an Athena SWAN Silver award, which recognises commitment to advancing women’s careers in STEM.

For example, the John Innes Centre offers financial support to parents with child-care or dependant responsibilities who want to attend conferences and workshops; and to Project Leaders wanting to fund a postdoc or equivalent to cover one year’s maternity leave. We also host Daphne Jackson Fellowships to support STEM professionals who wish to return to work after an extended leave  of two or more years, for health, caring or family reasons.

We are also members of the Stonewall Diversity Champion Programme.

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