March 8, 2019, by jicke

Women scientists are here and we’re fiercer than ever

By Dr Rebecca Dewey, Research Fellow at the University of Nottingham. 

We’re experiencing a nouvelle vague of intelligent, prominent women in the media, and the existence of events like International Women’s Day are the icing on the cake. Whether or not you’ve been aware of discussions in the media around Angela Saini’s Inferior campaign and Jess Wade’s crowdfunding drive to get a copy of Angela’s book in every girls’ state school in the UK, you will have heard about efforts to name, shame and stamp out the gender pay gap in earned salaries worldwide. Issues surrounding gender are really being taken seriously now by people who weren’t seeing the point before. I think progress on diversity could be accelerating and not just on binary gender equality, but all genders, races, ages, nationalities, classes…

The times they are a-changin’!

I struggle greatly with correlation vs. causation and I think we need to keep having the discussion about which we are seeing and when. I don’t yet think we have enough evidence to attribute positive change to any one action or set of actions, however, it’s undeniable that positive change is fuelling further discussion and inspiring a new generation of revolutionary gender activists. Overwhelmingly, I think the discussion we’re having is healthy and just the mechanism of that discussion is making us talk through and chew over why celebrating diversity (in the context of International Women’s Day, I’m talking about gender-diversity, but this effect is not just limited to gender-diversity) in the workplace is important. It’s making people everywhere come to their own very personal realisation that diversity enriches all things. I think that when people come to that realisation of their own accord, they are more likely to see the wider ramifications and be passionate about the cause, as opposed to just “being told it’s a good idea” and following along blindly because someone else wants them to. We’re seeing this self-awareness a lot more now and it’s having a very positive effect.

Get parents on board

The other change I’m just starting to notice is the way we as a scientific community view outreach for the purposes of inspiring a new generation of scientists. We’ve spent years (if not decades) working with the philosophy of “start them young”, and striving to make science interesting to younger and younger groups girls in schools. Now I’m sensing a wider realisation of the impact of the home environment on a child’s opinion of their relationship with science. If a child gets great science communicated to them at school, it can easily be “put down” by parents not seeing the value in it. So get them young, yes, but also get the parents on board! Novel public outreach platforms for women in science like Soapbox Science (branching out into art now) are swaggering in to the picture in order to support campaigns such as People Like Me (a scheme to put scientists in front of schoolgirls and challenge stereotypes). This holistic approach will help parents to see how important science will be in their children’s lives and how amazingly bright the future can look for us all thanks to diversity. Now more than ever, it is imperative that we support, grow and diversify the community interested in science, so that they can influence society.

Science is beginning to get that women aren’t inferior

I feel I am privileged to an unusual viewpoint, having one foot in Physics and the other foot in medicine. Physics is traditionally a very heavily male-dominated field, whereas medicine is often more female-dominated, but with the caveat that the population in academia, particularly senior research staff, is male-dominated and homogeneously white middle class. Medical physics is unusual in that here in Nottingham we have many excellent female professors, but that isn’t the case everywhere. However, on the plus side, institutional change is already being seen through the excellent work done at all levels by those involved in the Athena SWAN charter as well as the gender and race equality charters managed by Advance HE. The Institute of Physics (IOP), the professional body for physicists in the UK, leads the triennial International Conference on Women in Physics and has also just launched a Girlguiding badge “I’m a physicist”. It’s going to be a long road, but we can be proud of having taken the first few steps.

You’ll be able to talk to some of our excellent physics outreach people at Science in the Park this weekend, where we’ll also be promoting the Girlguiding badge!

Rebecca’s field is neuroimaging, and she is based in the Sir Peter Mansfield Imaging Centre, straddling the Faculties of Science and Medicine and Health Science. Rebecca was the University’s 2017 British Science Association Media Fellow. She had placements on the Jeremy Vine Show and on the BBC Radio Science Desk. On Tuesday of this week, she attended the BBC Fierce Women in the Media event in Birmingham!


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