My “Just one action for women in science” #Just1action4WIS

Posted on September 24, 2015

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Last week, a study by the L’Oreal Foundation was published stating “67% of Europeans think that women do not possess the required skill set in order to achieve high-level scientific positions”. In response to this, Athene Donald’s new campaign, challenging individuals to make “Just one action for women in science” #Just1action4WIS is a brilliant new initiative, tackling this attitude problem towards women in science right at its core. The campaign is based on a list of changes we can all make, to support women in science and indeed in any workplace. The list (see here for full version) itself is incredibly simple, highlighting the need to “Call out teachers who tell girls they can’t/shouldn’t do maths, physics etc.” and “Consider the imagery in your department and ensure it represents a diverse group of individuals”, among a number of other things.

Importantly, however, she has emphasised the need for scientists at all levels to:

“Be prepared to be a visible role model” and “Act as a sponsor or mentor”.

So, challenge accepted, I went back to my old school, Portsmouth High School today, to talk to the Year 5s about what it is to be a woman in science. This would be my first #Just1action4WIS, and the result was much more promising than I could have hoped for.

Having started by asking the girls to name a few famous scientists, I had expected to hear a stream of well known, and male, names with maybe the occasional “Rosalind Franklin” etc. thrown in. Instead, what I received was an impressive list of female scientists: “Jane Goodall”, “Maggie Aderin-Pocock”, and “Marie Curie” they confidently replied. Off to a good start, I thought.

With those role models in mind, we went on to discuss women in science, medicine, engineering, maths and astronomy and how we might make a difference in those fields, should we choose to pursue them in the future.

For each subject, we paused to talk about an inspiring woman, who had made great contributions in her area of expertise. We looked at how Rosalind Franklin helped make the revolutionary discovery of the structure of DNA, and how Dr Roberta Bondar initially trained as a doctor and later travelled into space to study the effect of space travel on an individual’s brain. We saw how engineering can do so much more than just building bridges: how chemical engineers are producing the next generation of anti-biotics or biomedical engineers might one day produce a mechanical heart, making the need for organ transplants consequently redundant.

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And, of course, we couldn’t finish without a shout out to Maths, so often undervalued, highlighting the importance of this field in underlying so many of the key concepts in STEM.

To end, we talked a little about what the girls could do next, to explore their interests in science further and see where it takes them. Suggestions included reading magazines (BBC Focus and Horrible Science are favorites), visiting local museums and attractions (Intec at Winchester was popular and a trip to the observatory at Clanfield was also an option) and entering competitions (the UK Maths Challenge and the National Science and Engineering Competition, which closes for entry in October are worth a try). As young girls interested in science, there are plenty of options and opportunities to explore. It is in participating in activities such as these, that an interest and an engagement in science is cultivated and maintained.

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And so, I hope my #just1action4WIS was a success for all. I would like to thank Portsmouth High School for the opportunity, and the girls for their brilliant questions!

Of all of them (there were many questions to be asked), there was one in particular which stood out:

“Why is it that people think science is a boy’s subject?”

And having watched girls enjoy and excel in science: from those in the Year 5 class this afternoon, all the way up to my peers on my University course, I have to say, that is the question.

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