Where does it start?
Government efforts to promote engagement in STEM certainly paid off with our small sample! Young women in the 21st century find scientific inspiration at school.
“My high school science teachers and my college chemistry teacher were incredible,” says Charlotte Gronan, Technical Innovation Chemist at Stephenson. “She was crazy but the smartest woman I had ever met.”
Jordan Parker, QC Laboratory Manager at Stephenson, was also inspired by her teachers, saying “My high school chemistry teacher was brilliant. She challenged you to think about something from a different perspective and was great at helping you understand a different point of view.”
Lucy Stone, Research Communications and Marketing Manager at Cancer Research UK, started even earlier, saying “When I was ten, I had a great science teacher who showed us interesting experiments that made the textbooks come to life.”
Alice Davies, Technical Specialist at James Heal, admits that she didn’t discover her love of science until University, during which she had a 12-month placement as a laboratory assistant for an outdoor clothing retailer. “My manager there was a big inspiration,” she says. “Coming from a design degree, I was worried I wouldn’t be up to the technical demands of a lab-based position, but my manager was very supportive … She definitely inspired me to pursue a more technical career path.”
Elizabeth Hogg, PhD student at Cancer Research UK Manchester Institute, also took a year in industry during her undergraduate degree. “I had a great supportive supervisor who spent a lot of time to teach me the world of industrial research,” she says. “I think my experience there inspired me to continue in science with more purpose.”
Perhaps most strikingly, these stories highlight the importance of great teachers and mentors in our lives.
“I don’t think I would be where I am today without mentorship,” says Lucy. “My previous boss [at Notch Communications] was a fantastic mentor. He trusted me and gave me a huge amount of responsibility and opportunity…. I think mentorship is important to show people what is possible.”
Emma Brown, PhD student at Cancer Research UK, Cambridge Institute, agrees. She says, “Mentorship is absolutely essential. I would not be where I am without the support of those with more experience.”
Gender neutrality in education
When my best friend studied engineering in the 1980s, she was 1 of 3 women in a class of 100. Statistics will tell you these ratios have improved, but I was curious to hear – first hand – how things had changed for young people in STEM further education.
According to Charlotte, “In my university lectures, there was an equal divide of male and female students and nobody was treated any differently.”
Jordan agreed, saying “Our classes and labs were pretty much a 50:50 split of women and men, so much so that when it came to graduation the ceremony included a speech on how many women were present and how great it was to see this in science.”
This is great news, but is equality sustained as the level of education rises? Sadly not.
“At an undergraduate/graduate student level, I would say that there is not much difference in the numbers of women and men,” declares Emma. “However, at higher positions, males still dominate. On the Department of Chemistry’s website at the University of Cambridge, there are 32 Professors under academic staff. As of April 2019, only 3 of these are women.”
Lucy agrees, saying “My cohort was fairly gender balanced. However, when you look at the chemistry department's lecturers it is much less even. The Royal Society of Chemistry found some shocking results as the gender balance at undergraduate level is 44% female, but when you get to professor level it is only 9%.”
Yes… so what about career progression?
Clearly, Lucy and Emma’s comments reveal that things are still not quite as they should be. I asked the panel if they felt that being a woman had ever affected their career progression. Already surrounded by other women at work, these high-achievers deny that they have been hindered, but they are not blind to the challenges out there.
“I don’t feel that it has made much of an impact for me,” says Alice. “Gender, race, sexuality etc should be irrelevant in any industry, but I don’t think we have reached that ideal yet. I count myself lucky not to have faced discrimination, but I know of people who have been less fortunate.”
Jordan agrees, adding “I can understand how frustrating it would be, to be turned down for a role you are equally or even sometimes more capable of. This possibly happens more often than we think.”
Emma adds, “I have never been halted in my career just for being a woman, but a lot of women choose not to progress because of family life etc. This means a lot of good talent is lost.”
“I don’t see a difference in how men and women in my peer group are viewed or treated,” says Elizabeth. “However, I see that the balance of men and women is not even as careers progress, especially in academia, which can be quite male dominated…. I expect that in the future there will be a greater balance, but for this to realistically work the retention of women in senior roles needs to be addressed.”
Concerns for the future
It’s good to hear that our small sample doesn’t feel their careers have been affected so far, but what about the future? In fact, most of them are worried about balancing work and family if they decide to have children. (I don’t think we need to wonder how many young men would be even thinking about this!)
As Charlotte says, “This is a concern for me... the effects that taking maternity leave will have on my career progression and how time away could affect my position.”
Jordan also admits, “I recently married and am very aware that to most people the next step is having children. Whilst this is something I would like in the future, there could be difficulties balancing a home and work life, especially having a husband who works seven days a week.”
Lucy also has concerns, saying, “Yes, I do think about this. I’m very ambitious and want to get to a senior position, but I’m also aware at some point I will want a family and it’s difficult to know how to balance that…”
“Being a woman in academic science is difficult because most women are still the primary caregiver. Fitting this kind of career [in academia] around family life is very difficult in a lot of cases,” says Emma.
Her concerns are echoed by Elizabeth, who says “I see that the academic workplace can be very challenging for parents to balance both family life and research in the fast-paced, competitive, work environment.”
Relating to previous generations
I asked our panel if they related to previous generations of women in science, who struggled for recognition, and was genuinely touched by their responses.
“I have so much admiration for the women in previous generations who had to fight to give my generation the chances we have now,” says Charlotte. “I would love to tell them that their persistence and strength has created incredible opportunities for women today.”
Jordan adds, “All the women who did not give up, it is because of them that I am where I am today, and I am extremely grateful.”
Alice also says, “I would like to say thank you. I feel grateful that they fought for the recognition they deserved because it has provided inspiration and helped to improve the situation for today’s generation.”
In summary, it seems safe to conclude that things are getting better. However, some areas still need a little work.
“There is a gender imbalance in research grants, as studies have shown that women are finding it more difficult to get funding for their research,” points out Lucy. She proudly mentions that her current employer, Cancer Research UK (the second-largest funder of cancer research in the world), is actively addressing this issue. “The organization has introduced a clear competency framework that focuses less on the number of consecutive years of experience, but rather on the researchers’ skills and achievements. This takes into account flexible research careers, such as part time working or career breaks,” she says.
But really, more than anything, women in any workplace need more support balancing work-life with their families. Like a big elephant in the room, we need to start discussing maternity and paternity leave, and how families – not just mothers – are going to manage the balance, allowing women to remain in work and reach the positions they deserve. When it is no longer assumed the responsibility of the mother to manage this balance, then perhaps we will be closer to equality than previous generations ever dreamed possible.
Our panel of young women in science for their honesty and for their vibrant enthusiasm for science, and to previous generations of men and women who fought for recognition and equality, and helped make the world what it is today.
Sarah Harding worked as a medical writer and consultant in the pharmaceutical industry for 15 years, for the last 10 years of which she owned and ran her own medical communications agency that provided a range of services to blue-chip Pharma companies. In 2016, she began a new career in publishing as Editor of Speciality Chemicals Magazine, and in 2019 we were honoured to welcome her as Editorial Director at Chemicals Knowledge.