International Day of Women and Girls in Science

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February sees the return of International Day of Women and Girls in Science and prompts us to celebrate and reflect on the involvement of women in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) subjects.

Despite an upward trajectory, there’s still more work to be done. Staff in the College of Medicine & Veterinary Medicine have been organising important outreach work to inspire young girls to consider a career in science: “Despite the positive increments made in gender equality, women are still dishearteningly under-represented in scientific research,” explains Jayne Quoiani, Education and Engagement Officer in the Roslin Institute. “According to UNESCO Institute for Statistics data, less than 30 per cent of the world’s researchers are women and only 3 per cent make it to leadership roles.”

A dynamic community

Jayne works with colleagues in the Easter Bush Science Outreach Centre (EBSOC) on a range of projects designed to encourage and allow anyone to engage with science. She shares why the opportunity to highlight this work is vital: “Days like this give us a platform from which everybody can use to communicate their inspirational message, celebrate women’s outstanding achievements across STEM, but also gives us a moment to pause and reflect on where we, and our organisations, are in our efforts to reduce the gender gap.

“It is also important to remember the other marginalised and under-represented groups in scientific research,” she adds. “Unfortunately, gender diversity isn’t the only challenge that we address through our work at EBSOC.  We are also prioritising engagement with young people from areas of socio-economic deprivation or rural isolation and are acutely aware of our role in encouraging young people of all gender identities, ethnicities and backgrounds to realise that they can work in science.”

Dr Kelly Blacklock is Senior Lecturer in Small Animal Surgery in the Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies. She has been working on a project to create free events for schools to encourage more girls to engage in science. She agrees with Jayne that there is still work to be done: “There are far fewer women scientists than men, which is outrageous – women are brilliant thinkers, nurturing leaders, and brave problem solvers, and I never want any girl to believe that science is not for them. I know that for many, science can be intimidating. This is the last thing we want – we want science to be seen as accessible, attainable, and fun. This day allows women scientists around the world to showcase their work and illustrate how diverse, dynamic and collaborative our community is.”

Scientists do wear dresses

Showing women and girls that science could be a viable career path for them includes confronting the idea that girls can’t do STEM subjects from an early age. Jayne explains more: “Large scale national surveys in England of more than 40,000 10- to 18-year-olds showed that a lack of interest in science was not the main issue – in fact the majority thought that science was interesting and scientists do valuable work. However, when asked ‘do you aspire to be a scientist’ the majority of young people said no. The reason for this is the lack of early exposure, role models and experience with STEM.”

The issue of visibility is key to Kelly’s project. She explains how a conversation with her daughter inspired her to begin this work: “One weekend, my five year old daughter declared that ‘scientists don’t wear dresses’ and I was horrified. If you have an enquiring mind and a passion for adventure, you’re a scientist!”

In the run-up to International Day of Women and Girls in Science, a team of women from across the Easter Bush campus visited five local primary schools and provided face-to-face science lessons to more than 250 children in P6 and P7. “We wanted to show children that everything they’re learning in school is relevant to a lifelong love of learning, including a varied career in science,” says Kelly. “During the in-school sessions, the children talked about the roles of vets, nurses, researchers, farmers, zoo keepers, animal trainers, and conservationists. In every session, we’ve been inspired by non-stop questions, and are excited to see what the next generation of scientists discover!”

To ensure that anyone could make use of the project, Kelly pulled together a range of free online resources, including videos, posters and information about opportunities for science-related learning. She is keen to continue to grow the project: “This is only the beginning! We’ve been working on this project for about five months but hope that it inspires a regular programme of science-themed activities with schools going forward.”

Creating role models

This kind of outreach work has a huge impact, that Jayne has seen first-hand at EBSOC, and often it’s entirely down to the people that get involved: “I often don’t think our staff realise just how important them being there is. We wouldn’t run an EBSOC schools’ workshop without them as they are the key to challenging out-of-date stereotypes. They become positive role-models and help us build science capital with our young visitors.”

“Many of the young people we work with have never met a scientist before,” continues Jayne. “Just by the act of our scientists being part of our engagement projects means that the young people begin to challenge their pre-conceived ideas about what a scientist is, how they look and what gender they identify with. After a while they soon realise scientists are just regular people that have made choices to work in science, choices that could be available to them too.”

Kelly agrees, and has also worked to present role models: “The meet a scientist section of our website includes short presentations from women across campus, including researchers, students, vets, and nurses.

“Essentially, we wanted to show that the people and their roles within our campus are very diverse, so that girls could have role models they could relate to. We look forward to expanding this resource over the next few months.”

It’s important to remember it’s not just a select few who can be considered role models. Jayne elaborates: “All women who work in professional services or research, at all career levels, can be a positive role model.”

But it’s not just about the work, or research people do that can inspire these children: “We provide training, support and opportunities for our Roslin Institute staff and students to talk about their work; but also about who they are, their career pathway and challenges they face,” says Jayne.

“It is important for young people to be able to identify themselves in the person doing the engagement, so they can see themselves in the scientist sitting in front of them,” she continues. “This recognition doesn’t come from a shared love of parasites or agreed opinions of the values of genome editing, it occurs through shared cultural context such as where they live, their favourite football team or Netflix show, a love of animals, or even experience of speaking English as a second language.”

The power of public engagement

Seeing that impact of public engagement work has been a real highlight for Kelly. She shares more: To see children realise that the career they had envisaged is within their grasp is just magical. I particularly enjoyed a discussion about how raisins are poisonous to dogs- every point I made was met with ‘but why?’, until I could provide no further answers. Dissatisfied with my response, the children then led their own discussion on how they could investigate this phenomenon further. It was a testament to their school’s enthusiasm in encouraging enquiring minds from a young age, and a highlight of my career as an educator.”

Jayne has witnessed how public engagement has benefitted those running these outreach sessions just as much as those attending: “Public engagement provides so many benefits to staff from developing personal skills in communication, building public trust, to reminding you why you do what you do and even getting fresh perspectives on your work that might give you that light bulb moment!”

So how can staff get involved? Jayne explains: Firstly, my advice is to tap into the networks that already exist within your organisation. Speak to your colleagues in your communications and public engagement departments and ask how you can get involved!

“Find out about your organisation’s strategies that are committed to gender equality and representation for women. And last, but not least, encourage your women colleagues at all career levels to make themselves visible and get involved in communications and engagement activities in your organisation.”

Kelly agrees that it’s her colleagues that have inspired her and been vital to the work she’s been doing: “We couldn’t have made this project such a success without the huge enthusiasm of all the fantastic women across the Easter Bush Campus, all of whom inspire me every single day.”

Find out more about Kelly’s project.

Find out more about the Easter Bush Science Outreach Centre.

Photography was either taken before the pandemic or in accordance with applicable Covid-19 guidance.