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Nurturing the next generation of women in science

Today is International day of Women and Girls in Science. Unfortunately, we still need a special international day for this. Despite targeted efforts made over the past two decades to close the gap, women are still underrepresented in STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths).

Those that have made it in are facing a stark gender pay gap, which in the UK is 50% greater than the national average for all employers. As well as this, 90% of funding for physical sciences and engineering goes to male-led teams. And the gender gap isn’t limited to people: even lab animals face a stark bias towards male individuals! This isn’t as funny as it may seem: the fact that most medical research focusses on males means that we know remarkably little about how illnesses and treatments interact with female bodies and hormones. Therefore, we keep developing treatments that are more effective for men than for women.

So, it is clear we need to step up efforts. Science, and STEM more broadly, is crucial for our society and for tackling the huge environmental crises we are facing. We can’t afford to only look at half the population to supply this crucial workforce, we also need a diversity of viewpoints and experiences from the whole of society – from women as well as ethnic minorities, disabled people and all other under-represented groups – to tap into the full breadth of innovative ideas and create solutions that work for all. 

But what makes a good scientist? And how can we support women to develop these skills and get employers to recognise and value them in women?

As director of Science, Policy and Innovation at Earthwatch Europe I lead a team of dedicated scientists (currently 55% female). I have a vast international network of science professionals and have interviewed countless people for science roles. On reflection I have noticed that there are three traits that set my science heroes apart, three traits I particularly look out for when hiring people.

Firstly, curiosity. It’s at the heart of scientific investigation and crucial for innovation (see my earlier blog on this here). The best scientists I know are not just curious about their own field, they display the same curiosity about the wider world, continuously ‘beachcombing’ their surroundings for snippets of ideas they can use in their own work. The interesting thing about curiosity is that all children have it in abundance. Curiosity is the main driver for the vast learning curve we all go through as youngsters. However, some people manage to hang on to it more than others as they grow up.

Courage is another cornerstone of scientific research. It takes courage to try something new, to venture into unchartered territory and to explore an idea that – by definition – you don’t yet know holds true. Good scientists also constantly remain critical of their own work: is my conclusion really the only reasonable explanation for what I have observed or are there any alternative hypotheses? If a new piece of research contradicts earlier findings then it takes courage to stand up and admit that you got it wrong, yet such courage and honesty is key to constantly advancing our knowledge.

Finally, stamina. Scientific investigation, statistical data analysis, peer-review and grant application writing are all intensive and time-consuming. They take a good dose of patience and stamina, failing and trying again, to see them through.

None of these traits are inherently male or female and all can be trained and nurtured. But I wonder whether, as a society, we nurture them in equal measures in boys and girls? Are boys and girls equally encouraged to tinker and explore, feeding their curiosity? Is it equally accepted for women, as for men, to take a dissenting view or to fail and keep going?

There are certainly not equal amounts of role models around, for example only 12% of science role-models on television are female.  

There are clearly still many things governments, companies and institutions need to do to support women and girls in science. Alongside them, we can all start to make a difference by encouraging and supporting girls to be curious, courageous and confident. Citizen science – real research that involves non-scientists in one or more stages of the scientific process - can be a great way for people from all ages to get involved, learn, explore and feed their curiosity. This is one of the many reasons we’re passionate about Citizen Science at Earthwatch.

There is more we can all do. Everyone needs a cheerleader to grow their curiosity and build the confidence to be courageous and patient. Everyone, men and women; teachers; parents; neighbours; friends; colleagues and certainly fellow scientists, can help girls and women to grow and flourish in science. Be that cheerleader, the role-model, a supporter, a shoulder to cry on, the inspirator or coach. We Are All Wonder Women has some great inspiration. Let’s all be part of the change, by demanding better from governments, businesses and institutions and by supporting all the wonderful girls and women that have it in them to be brilliant scientists.

Toos van Noordwijk, director of science, policy and innovation





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