Since 2013 I have been a Senior Scientist at the Met Office. I am an Atmospheric Dispersion Scientist studying how smoke, chemicals, radioactive material, and volcanic ash are transported by the wind.
I work in STEM because I am fascinated by the world around me
My interest in the natural world was first ignited by my parents. My parents both studied geography at university and I was introduced to physical geography during day trips and holidays. It was my parent’s way of entertaining their children and on long walks in the countryside I soon learnt to recognise oxbow lakes and glaciated valleys. As I grew older, I learnt more about the how landscapes were shaped over millennia.
Time spent outdoors as a child not only lead to a passion for environmental science but also a passion for outdoor activities. Ironically, the outdoors is another area where women are vastly outnumbered by men. During my PhD I destressed by spending days hiking alone in North Wales and the Lake District. I never felt unsafe but the men I passed on my walks expressed their surprise that a woman would walk alone in the hills. The advantage of my participation in outdoor sports was that by the time I went to university I was used to being in the minority, one of only a few women in a large group of men.
There were only 4 women in a physics class of 40
I don’t think I was fully aware of the male bias in science until I went to university. I attended a mixed state-run secondary school and both my physics and mathematics classes had approximately equal numbers of boys and girls. University was a stark contrast. In my final two years at St Andrews University there were only 4 women in a physics class of 40.
I disliked maths at school because it was boring. I only took A Level maths because I could see that it complimented A Level physics. Up until the day I filled in my university application form my plan was to study physics and chemistry at university. However, university opened my eyes to the variety of applications of maths from fluid dynamics to biological population modelling and even solar mathematics. In contrast physics started to move to the study of the incredibly small or the unimaginable large and by the time I graduated I knew that I wanted to apply my physics and maths knowledge to the natural world. A summer student placement at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute introduced me to physical oceanography and when I finished university, I applied to do a PhD in oceanography.
Personal protective equipment is designed for the average man
I’m fortunate that I have never encountered malicious behaviour towards women, but I have encountered biases even if they have been unconscious. There was a university lecturer who insisted on addressing everyone in the class as “Mr.”, the delivery drivers who assumed that as we were women, we must be secretaries and the male colleagues who’ve talked over me.
During my first postdoc I spent a month and a half carrying out research at sea and this was when I encountered another challenge. Personal protective equipment is designed for the average man. At the time, and in the shop recommended by the university, boiler suits were only sold in men’s collar sizes. More frustratingly, I couldn’t get steel-toe capped boots in a size small enough for my feet, so I ended up wearing two pairs of socks even when the temperature on deck was in the high 20’s!
After completing my first postdoc position I took on a postdoc position at Duke University in North Carolina, USA. Here I was fortunate to have a fantastic mentor who helped me gain confidence in my ability to do science. She also introduced me to other scientists at meetings and demonstrated that it was possible to be a scientist and have a work-life balance.
As an atmospheric dispersion scientist, I carry out research and provide advice during emergencies
Following my second postdoctoral position I realised that I wanted to do science with a more immediate impact on people, so I moved to the Met Office and switched my science focus from oceanography to atmospheric dispersion science. Within my role as an atmospheric dispersion scientist I carry out research and provide advice during emergencies. For example, when fires tore through the forest surrounding the site Chernobyl accident I worked with other scientists to model the transport of the radioactive material resuspended by the fire and provided reassurance to the UK government that the material would not be transported to the UK.
I’m truly grateful for the women pioneers of the past who paved the way for women in science, but I also feel that there is still of a lot of work to do to achieve gender balance in science. I’m worried that women have become less visible during the recent period of homeworking due to Covid-19. When I look at recordings of virtual meetings the videos are dominated by men even when the meeting attendees were equally split between men and women.
The main takeaways from our discussion were as follow,
The book brings new perspectives to climate change.
There is an emphasis on cross-society approaches. We often come across the activist view, or the economist view, but finding the voice of women, minorities or artists is not the norm. People from all backgrounds, professions and communities share their perspective on climate change, and even bring a certain spirituality to it. Even though the book is US-centric, these new voices add to everyone’s perspective.
The book calls to balance between “cold-hearted” scientific solutions vs. community-social perspectives
The title brings with it the realisation that we have lost things, which we will not be able to get back. There is an underlying assumption that the solutions, technology and advances will make climate change go away. However, the different essays turn this around by showing a balance between the people’s grief towards climate change, and the pro-active approach towards finding solutions to it. There is an acknowledgement of the losses and questioning what the best way to move forward is, for your local community and the global population.
The book questions the way we construct the climate change (and human actions) narrative, and it highlights the importance of integrating art into climate communication. Art can help to reach the general public and make things easier to understand and relate to.
The book highlights the relationship between inequality & climate change.
Climate and fairness used to be intrinsically related in the discourse, especially the interlink between climate and sustainable development goals was clear. However, this has changed in recent years, and the link between poverty and climate change sometimes seems to be forgotten. The book re-emphasises this important link and the need to tackle global inequality to succeed in maintaining a habitable climate around the world.
Throughout the book, the idea that climate solutions have to include all the community has been a strong theme and the importance of tackling inequality. However, the essays also link this to the big picture and the construction of the vision and how intertwined situations related to climate are.
The book is very informative.
The book has a lot of information about very different sub-topics on climate change. The book has references on subjects such as energy costs, historical perspectives on policies, to the community-importance in the health of tree populations. There is an interesting blending of social-science and physical-science.
The book is a statement in itself.
We asked ourselves if the book would reach a bigger audience easily, even though there is a clear place for it. The book continues as a project, so they will probably find ways to reach people and delivering their messages. The intention of the book seems to be more of a resource/reference, than a book to read whole. It would also be an excellent resource for teaching.
The book formalises and condensates various ideas, opinions and knowledge from varied voices. It is a statement in itself, an example of a way forward, by highlighting women and amplifying their voices. We hope male-dominated spaces will make more space for these women and all the other great women working in the climate crisis going forward.
There are multiple avenues to the future, and there is not a single solution to the climate crisis. Everyone will take something different from the essays and poems, take the bits you need from it!
“So, I tell you this not to scare you,
But to prepare you, to dare you
To dream a different reality,
Where despite disparities
We all care to protect this world,
This riddled blue marble, this little true marvel”
Earthrise, Amanda Gorman
Further reading & watching
(Recommended by the session attendants)
+ Too hot to handle – Rebecca Wills, Bristol University Press
Freya describes her journey from working class roots to obtaining a doctorate in ocean science and working at the Met Office, and why she is passionate in improving diversity in science through a focus on inclusion.
I am Freya, a climate scientist at the Met Office working on compound events and risk to UK sectors (if you are interested in learning more see my details of a recent webinar here and a recently Tweeted video here for the really short version)! I’m writing this as a woman in science and as a co-founder of the Women in Climate network, which is a support network for women, men and non-binary people at the University of Exeter and Met Office as they progress through their careers, and that helps give scientists, particularly from underrepresented groups, knowledge and skills that will help them succeed in their careers. I see my diversity and climate work as very much interlinked. I work as a climate scientist because I am passionate about helping people to stay safe and thrive, and I think that the changes required to prevent damage to life and economies from high levels of global warming may require large scale adaptation that is likely only to be achieved with cultural change and tackling inequality in our global and local societies (read more about the connection between gender and climate change here). I hope to make some small contribution to this by helping promote women in science and providing events that benefit all.
Although I’m very concerned about the lack of women scientists at senior level still in science and at the Met Office, on a personal level, there are other aspects about me that make me feel more unusual in the Met Office such as identifying as queer (an umbrella term for sexual/gender minorities who are not heterosexual or cisgender) and that I have never wanted to get married nor have children. Many queer people have historically often felt unable to be openly queer at work, and so not being worried about being treated differently because of this at the Met Office is a privilege many in this world still don’t have. These are invisible characteristics that do not impact my work, and if I didn’t tell you, you simply wouldn’t know about them. However, we live in a world where our perceived gender, as well as many other visible factors, influences how people are treated and therefore how they tend to behave. Diversity and inclusion create a positive work culture, and this is linked to productivity and happiness at work. Our science will be better when it is diverse and inclusive of both visible and invisible characteristics at both junior and senior levels. The evidence shows that it is important for aspiring junior colleagues to see role models that help them persevere to senior positions, so it is important to increase gender diversity across senior levels of the organisation as well as other metrics of diversity such as racial and socio-economic background.
Let’s acknowledge our privilege
Science is full of very intelligent and skilled scientists and we all have privilege of some kind. In my case, being white in the area I grew up (the Isle of Man), Southampton and Devon, so I visibly ‘fit in’ to British rural life in Devon where I currently live. I am physically well, apart from being somewhat curvy in a western culture where beauty standards frequently make women feel inferior. I have had the chance to enjoy (and afford!) adventuring from the Three Peaks in the UK, to diving in Zanzibar and trekking in South America after a research cruise to Antarctica. I come from a supportive family where education was valued and where I faced neither discouragement nor excess pressure during my education. I gained confidence during my teenage years as I played music, performed in school plays, and entered public speaking competitions locally – my busy life started young! My parents and the Isle of Man Government helped fund my undergraduate education and my doctorate was funded by the University of Southampton and National Oceanography Centre. My parents are supportive of my career and help me out frequently in many ways, without suggesting I should be doing something that pays more or settling down and having a family ‘before it’s too late’. I am absolutely privileged in ways that many people are not, and I am very grateful for that.
From working class to highly educated
I come from a working-class background, with my family earning in total around £30,000 per year (around the UK median household income in 2019) during my teenage years as my parents ran a small dry-cleaning shop. We certainly were not poor, but I received a standard UK non-selective mixed-gender state school education, which was in line with family values. During sixth form, I took the unusual path of applying to Cambridge, rather than the northern England universities where most of my peers went. I was the only person in my year at school to apply to Oxbridge. I discovered when I started studying Mathematics at King’s College Cambridge that my school was not considered a particularly good school, and anecdotally I have frequently found my colleagues in science to come from significantly more privileged financial backgrounds and/or to have parents with higher status professions. Ultimately, feeling that I did not fit in there (perhaps the first time I experienced the imposter phenomena), together with experiencing depression and a desire to change to a more applied science subject, led me to discontinuing that course after 1 term.
According to Wikipedia, the two highest ranked women scientists in the Met Office in recent years, Julia Slingo and Penny Endersby, had private educations. A colleague has revealed to me that going to all-girls schools can have disadvantages, such as a heightened level of distraction at university(!), but there does seem to be an innate confidence that is instilled by excellent educations. I imagine that at an all-girls school there is a very different atmosphere around taking science at A-Level; for example, my experience of physics and chemistry was of being 1 of 2 or 3 girls in the class. My well-meaning non-selective state school tried to ask me not to include on my UCAS application that I had self-taught myself GCSE Mathematics in a year, something that the school had encouraged me to do, lest it reflect badly on the school. Always tenacious, I respectfully declined to remove evidence of my abilities from my application, but this is just one example of how the experience of non-selective state schools can often dent rather than increase the confidence and resilience of students. In addition, as women, we are not typically encouraged to self-promote (leading to less women applying for progression or requesting pay rises relative to men). As academically excellent students, we often spent time at state school keeping out of sight and mind of bullies, and I certainly experienced mixed teaching and career advice. Despite achieving highly across the board, I always remember the take-away from a school career interview being a suggestion that I study music because I seemed to enjoy it. Yes, I did, but I found the prospect of a musical career quite unstable financially; ironically, my decision to become a research scientist meant I took up my first permanent job (my current one) age 30! I felt music was more of a hobby whereas I excelled at many academic subjects, achieving 9 A* and 2 A GCSEs. I hate to think that other talented young women scientists might still be being encouraged away from, rather than into, STEM subjects.
My perspective as a woman in a science
As a generalisation, men and women are socialised differently in our society. Women tend to exhibit a lack of confidence, resilience and competitive nature relative to men in the workplace which is likely to be a factor in why we see fewer women in senior positions. If you don’t believe this, talk to women close to you about their lived experiences, which may range from instances of overt sexual harassment or long-term abuse to much smaller daily ‘microaggressions’ which wear people down over time (#metoo movement). The power imbalances in science and academia often lead to harassers remaining in science when their victims leave, and (as with other instances of abuse or harassment in society) documented cases of harassment may take years to come to light (recommended watch: Picture a Scientist). More typical examples of these for women range from being unable to give a clear ‘no’ to advances from men because of fear of aggressively objectifying responses, the constant niggling at being asked their marital status for completely irrelevant things, or how they often feel like they end up with an excessive burden of household chores compared to the men they live with. Implicit and explicit biases exist across the media and in children’s books and toys; one of my research scientist colleagues was shocked when her children’s classmates guessed that she worked as a secretary. These biases are general features of life as well as work (though they may be even more likely in a male-dominated work culture). We are human, and we all have biases (have you done unconscious bias training or an IAT test?), objective as our science might be. Even if you see a woman apparently shrugging off microaggressions, she is likely to be internally affected more deeply; as women, we have often been consciously or subconsciously taught that we much not appear over-emotional if we want to succeed. People will also experience microaggressions due to race, disability and other visible characteristics, and I suspect some of our male scientists, especially those who attended state schools, faced bullying due to being labelled a ‘geek’ or ‘nerd’ at school. We all have privilege in some areas, and a lack of it in others; we are all different.
I’ve always been relatively confident in myself and academically very competitive, and I feel sure this has helped me get where I am today, and I have also learnt tools through my twenties about how to be more assertive in my career and increase my resilience to failure. It has felt a little like doing catch up of skills I was never taught at school. I can only imagine how much harder many other people find this path, especially visible minorities and those from lower socio-economic backgrounds, when they might have additional obstacles that they face such as having to care for family members or not having financially or emotionally supportive family. Many schools still struggle to provide the academic stretch that gifted students really need, setting them off at a disadvantage before university.
How do I think we should work to increase diversity in science?
Like many people, I do periodically experience depression and anxiety, and I find that when I do, life is so much harder. There has been a fantastic openness in my workplace around wellbeing since the pandemic started, which is beginning to change the stigma people feel around discussing mental health and people seem keen to discuss and listen to the different challenges people are facing. Increasing our focus on and celebrating our different personalities, skills and experiences will help improve inclusivity, but I believe it will also make for better teams in the workplace. However, we must not forget that under-represented groups face systemic biases, and positive action can help improve action. So, we can also be proactive by mentoring and sponsoring promising young talent from under-represented groups.
Being a woman may have made my path here somewhat more difficult than if I had been a man because of the inherent gender biases that exist throughout society and that make women, non-binary and men who don’t fit their ‘stereotype’ often feel anything from patronised to outright harassed. We all have unconscious biases, and this is still resulting in biases against women in job applications. We need to keep working as individuals and as organisations to keep challenging ourselves on potential bias around our processes, such as hiring and progression, our structure and its power dynamics, and helping aspiring women fulfil their career aims through providing coaching and mentoring to give them the skills and confidence they need. Ultimately, we need to listen and act on what our people tell us about the biases inherent in our language, processes and structure and try to make them more inclusive without defensiveness. Nobody is perfect, and we all make mistakes, but we can all keep trying to be more inclusive.
However, by many diversity metrics, the people in science, particularly in the south west of England, do not represent our society either at the regional, national, or global level and we need to listen beyond our organisations. My relatively underprivileged background compared to many I’ve met in science is something that has surprised and concerned me, because so many people across the UK will have had a more difficult education experience than me and come from much poorer backgrounds. They lack the aspiration and encouragement to get to Russell Group universities, let alone dream of working at a world leading organisation such as the Met Office. I am an advocate of influencing young people from an early age, which we do at the Met Office through our STEM Ambassador programme and our Science Camps. In 2018 I volunteered for the Brilliant Club, an initiative where I worked with students from a local underprivileged school over 6 weeks on a specialist science subject, hopefully giving me enough time with them to have some meaningful impact. Diversity work and outreach take a huge amount of time and energy and it is important that this is recognised and valued when scientists apply for more senior roles.
Finally, there are many different factors contributing to each of our experiences, and therefore consideration of intersectionality is very important (definition: ‘the interconnected nature of social categorizations such as race, class, and gender as they apply to a given individual or group, regarded as creating overlapping and interdependent systems of discrimination or disadvantage’). We should not compare different types of potential disadvantage but consider that people’s experiences may be affected by different types simultaneously and that people will take away different experiences from the same events. We need to strive for inclusion to enable both people who already work in science and those who might enter to feel comfortable at work and ensuring that we not just hire and retain, but see promising talent thrive in the world of science.
As a child I knew exactly what I wanted to be when I grew up:
Age 4-7: Woods-woman – Friend to foxes and owls, I would hunt for my food and live in an underground burrow, traveling only by horse. Farmer’s wife was a back-up option.
Age 7-12: Famous author, illustrator and wildlife documentary filmmaker – I planned to travel the world, learning about animals and filming BBC documentaries. My travels would inspire my novels.
Age 12-13: Prime minister – With climate change, war and inequality the world was clearly a mess. I felt called to form a new political party to sort things out.
So, where I am now (Research Fellow in Climate) was not what I imagined! Basically, I’ve just followed my strengths and interests. My childhood dreams were all strongly shaped by a love of the outdoors and a passion to do what I could to make the world a better place. In secondary school I found Maths and Physics challenged but engaged me, driving me to try harder and do better to crack problems. Even so, it wasn’t until a lab class late in my undergraduate degree that I realised Atmospheric Physics/Climate Science was a way to bring these two puzzle pieces together.
So, what helped and what didn’t?
Not knowing what being a scientist meant, in a practical sense
In outreach talks we’d hear: ’the next Einstein might be in this room right now’, ‘the person who solves this problem could be one of you’. This is well-meant, but for me was intimidating more than motivational. I was good at maths but I was fully aware I was not a genius!
Scientists seemed to be another species that could pull new ideas about the world out of the air through sheer brilliance. We’d do experiments in science classes, but these were retreading well-known ground. Being the first to learn something about the world was unimaginable.
Age appropriate outreach or TV showing how individual scientists actually ask questions and solve problems might have helped demystify this. We (rightly!) highlight the names like Einstein or Darwin, who made fantastic discoveries. But in reality most science is incremental, chipping away at small pieces of a bigger problem until an answer emerges.
Lack of confidence
I am in awe of friends who have chased their dreams, whether that’s in science, music, art or business. At some point in secondary school my ambition and confidence to dream big vanished. Sometimes teachers or friends try to be kind by managing expectations: “Science is difficult”, “Oxford is competitive”, “Lots of people want to be vets”, “You need to know the right people to go into politics”.
Those statements are all reasonable and might actually motivate some people. But when we focus too much on cushioning someone from failure there’s a risk of discouraging them from even trying. Whether you’re raising a child or supervising a post-doc, encourage them to just give the next step a go.
Fear of failure, of wasting time on a dead end, or of looking stupid and arrogant are still the biggest barriers I face day-to-day. Imposter syndrome limits my ambition and leaves me paralysed with indecision.
Things that have helped me progress in science
A good start: Family & education
My dad’s an engineer and my mum’s an accountant. STEM subjects were valued my family and our background was financially comfortable.
I went to an all-girls secondary school with a mix of male and female science teachers. I’m not a fan of single-sex schooling, I think it made men and boys seem very ‘other’. But a positive side-effect was that Physics was never a gendered subject for me at school.
University-level Physics was a shock to the system! I could laugh off banter about what I’d done to get my place, but it did make me realise women weren’t the norm here. This was the first time imposter syndrome hit; had I got a place to fill some quota?
Supportive friends and colleagues
I’ve worked alongside hard-working, creative, kind and approachable people. From undergrad on I have been surrounded by friends to bounce ideas off and I’ve not felt in direct/hostile competition with my colleagues, even when we apply for the same grants or jobs.
Good mentorship: Freedom with nudges
I’ve been given support and space through my PhD and post-doc to develop my own ideas, explore side-projects, publish solo, practice writing grants, travel and build a network. I’ve also been nudged to think through how to manage my career and encouraged to apply for jobs or fellowships even if the odds are tough.
Luck – Roadblocks I didn’t hit
I feel very lucky I’ve had all of the above!
A good working environment is something that should be a baseline expectation for everyone. We should all feel safe and accepted at work. Subconscious bias is tough to beat, but it would be nice to think of it as the ‘final boss’ on the road to diversity and inclusion in science, and to pretend we’re all hard at work on that goal. So it’s uncomfortable to say how grateful I am that I’ve had good luck with my mentorship and research groups, compared to female friends who have been mismanaged out of science at ‘best’ and harassed or assaulted at worst.
Also, I’m white, middle-class, cis and in a straight relationship. I have been able to live in the country I grew up in throughout my career to date, but I’ve had the choice to work abroad easily available. I don’t think gender has not played any role in the opportunities I’ve had, but it would be wrong to ignore the privilege I do have.
I’m still taking my career step by step. The next goal is to work towards a permanent research position, but I’m still intimidated by how competitive science is. So for now I’ll work hard and try to be ambitious, and think big, and dare to dream… but we’ll see. Most of all, I want a career where I can use the strengths I have to do work I feel is worthwhile.
…But I could paint my whole science story in a more intentional light. One daydreamed novel from my ‘famous author’ years was a post-apocalyptic romance set in a world ruined by climate change and nuclear war. In my scribbled plans is a note: ‘Gulf stream may shut down? Learn more about climate change’. …8 years and counting!
On this, the International day of Women and girls in STEM, I wanted to share some of my own route into science, and the hurdles that I’ve faced along the way. Diversity at all levels in science, while slowly improving, is certainly lagging behind other fields and doesn’t reflect the society we see around us. I hope that with more people sharing their stories, we can acknowledge the challenges, and collectively work together towards better representation.
My own interest in science stated at a very young age, since I was lucky enough that both of my parents were scientists – a privilege that few have. I attended a science specialist girls state school during my teenage years, before moving to a sixth form college and then to the University of Nottingham to study Physics, from where I graduated last year. I am now studying at the University of Exeter, working towards my PhD in the Mathematics department, focused on climate modelling. At every stage of my post-16 education, since leaving an all-girls environment, I have found myself in a minority in most of the rooms I walk into.
I recall when I was 15 having to make the decision to move from my school to a different college since, despite being a science specialist, they didn’t offer the maths A Levels I wanted to take. One of the things I remember most about that move was saying goodbye to one of my teachers. When I told them where I was going and what I would be studying they said “Why on earth would you want to do that?”. At the time I was pretty shocked and brushed it off, this wasn’t the first person that was surprised that I would be studying maths and physics. But this was coming from a teacher at a girls’ science specialist school. While society might be telling us that girls can study what they want, these outdated views are still sadly entrenched in education. Whether it be a clear comment like the one I received, or the fact that all of the qualified physics teachers I had in my school were male, these stereotypes are still around and influencing young girls without us realising.
Moving to college, I found myself in very male dominated classrooms for the first time. I honestly don’t know if I would be where I am now if I was faced with that before the age of 16. I felt that my maths knowledge was always a step behind and I was playing catch up since I hadn’t gone to a private school, or done extra qualifications such as additional maths GCSEs. I felt that I had to work harder and longer to get the same results. I took on extra leadership roles in my college and had a string of extra-curriculum activities and yet got rejected from as many Universities as my peers. Even when I got to Uni, there was a lack of support for women in STEM subjects, and on occasion I got mistaken for other people, in one case for someone’s lab partner for the simple fact that I was the only girl in the room.
Through my teenage years and beyond, I have been a part of and helped to facilitate a number of wonderful outreach programmes which are run by Universities and boards such as the Institute of Physics. Amazing work has been, and is being done to inspire girls into studying STEM subjects. Unfortunately, this is still not reflected in senior science roles and importantly, media representation. Much of the research refers to a ‘leaky pipeline’, whereby the percentage of women in STEM slowly decreases at each stage of academia. It is interesting that in the UK this figure is fairly stable from A-Level through to postgraduate degrees, at about 20% (How Many Women are in Physics?, L.McCullough, 2016, Morgan& Claypool Publishers). It is however abundantly clear that this is not anywhere near to parity and it is generally considered to be much lower when you consider more senior science roles. Statistics for women in physics show that the increase from the 90’s to this current percentage has been incredibly slow, and if we continue at this rate the route to parity will take an incredibly long time. Progress is even slower when we consider ethnic diversity in physics, with the current rates of underrepresented minorities sitting well under 20% in America (Data from American Physical Society,).
Both of these aspects are of importance when considering the question of climate justice. It is well accepted that any climate action must be intersectional. It follows that our science must then also come from a place of diversity, both in gender and in ethnicity and cultural backgrounds. We must therefore, make it a priority to improve the diversity of those carrying out this vital research as a matter of urgency. It will always be the case that science is political, because scientists are not immune to the political culture we live in. By improving the diversity and range of people carrying out this vital research, we include a range of cultural views and therefore our science will be fuller and better for it. I have experienced this myself, moving from an incredibly diverse secondary school in the London Borough of Hounslow, to a much less diverse sixth form college in Surrey. There was a loss of richness in ideas and approaches, particularly surrounding more culturally and politically relevant discussions.
The ‘leaky pipeline’ referred to, is often addressed at the beginning of the educational journey. Most outreach work is focused on inspiring girls into science A-Levels and degrees. I would argue that the lack of representation at the top end of the career ladder is equally, and possibly more important. I strongly believe that this challenge in diversifying science leadership roles needs active improvement, and some of this responsibility falls to the Universities and research institutions. We need tailored career advice, role models, mentoring programmes, leadership and communication training and so much more. Just getting girls to study STEM post-16 is no longer enough. The climate emergency is only ever going to be solved with equal and fair representation in decision making roles. We can no longer afford for women in science to be side tracked into more teaching and pastoral roles as they often are.
I find it no coincidence that I’ve ended up studying at the only University where for both undergrad and postgrad applications, there was another woman present in the room for interview. If we want more women and girls in STEM, and for them to stay in STEM, we need to urgently improve the environment that they enter. Representation and diversity in senior science roles must improve, both for the next generation of scientists coming through, and with the view to improving the science that is done and how it is communicated. The unfortunate truth is that most people reading this are already very aware of what I’ve spoken about. The people that need to hear this, are the ones that aren’t listening- an ironically similar problem to that faced with the climate emergency.
Today’s International Day is all about celebrating girls and women in STEM. Much has been achieved over the past decades – not too long ago women had to fight to even enter higher education. Despite this discrimination, numerous women still found a way into science and made pioneering contributions to all areas of STEM.
However, this international day also draws attention to ongoing underrepresentation, inequalities and discrimination. These include overarching problems, such as the gender pay gap that are beyond individual actions and often structural problems, unconscious biases and (in-)visibility, and influences on the personal level. Tackling these problems needs the contribution of a diverse group of allies from all genders and backgrounds, willing to ease the path of women into science.
The path into science may be easy, winding, rocky,…
As long as I can remember, I wanted to become a marine biologist. Even before starting primary school this aim was clear. In its pursuit, I attended a secondary school which focussed on STEM subjects, then went on to university to do a B.Sc. and M.Sc. degree in Oceanography (not quite Marine Biology, but still close enough). And here I am today, working towards a PhD degree. Simple and straightforward, right?
However, the more time I spend at universities and research institutes the more I realise how few barriers I encountered and how privileged I was. I had all the support I needed, financially, mentally, you name it. Even before going to the university my family supported my aim, for example, through gifting scientific books. Neither can I recall a teacher at school doubting I could achieve my goals (Thank you!) or propagating outdated stereotypes about Women in STEM. These stereotypes should be contested whenever they are encountered. After all, there is no scientific evidence that proves any gender-dependent eligibility for pursuing a STEM career.
A “typical scientist” is still pictured as male. The lack of role models in certain professions has been put forward as a seed for imposter syndrome, the feeling of not being/knowing enough for a certain position and thus the risk of being exposed. Unsurprisingly, imposter syndrome affects more women than men. The consequence is the nagging question of belonging, which may discourage girls and women to pursue or continue their career in STEM.
One important step is to challenge outdated views of what a “typical scientist” looks like. Concrete action: if you’re a scientist who enjoys working with children then visit a local school to engage children in scientific topics. Or to specifically support girls in STEM, many places offer dedicated mentorship programmes.
The path at the university
When entering university, the question of belonging may arise or be enhanced. If you look around in a lecture hall and see an overwhelming majority of men, it is easy to wonder if you belong there as a woman. Or even worse, you may ponder over the gender imbalance, while some of your male peers may not see this problem or even dismiss it. In contrast, in a supportive group of peers the feeling of belonging becomes natural; awareness and inclusive behaviour are key to achieve this.
Again, I was lucky enough to find such a group, as well as women lecturers and mentors as role models and moral support. For students it is uplifting if issues beyond academic questions can be addressed as well. For neither students nor staff seeing a gender imbalance in STEM subjects should not be the norm. Instead, questioning these imbalances should become the habit as well as the expression of thoughts about it.
The path towards becoming a scientist
Happily, many workplaces have dedicated groups and networks in place to discuss job-unrelated matters in a safe space, such as the Women in Climate network at the University of Exeter and the Met Office. For anyone attending these meetings, independent of gender, it is a simple way to increase general awareness and acknowledge issues, for example, women’s underrepresentation in STEM.
An active listening practice is a key competency to adopt – genuinely listen to understand the issue, not to respond. The listener may even discover their own unconscious biases and assumptions they were unaware of. There are numerous examples of unconscious biases which can impede diversifying workplaces; for example, the gender bias in job recruitment has been shown to favour men over women despite equal qualifications.
However, there are also systematic obstacles for women’s presence and visibility in STEM. A study into academic seminar participation found that women are less likely to ask questions, in relative and absolute terms, if a man asks the first question. Therefore, if you are in the position of chairing a seminar, try letting the first question come from a women to increase their visibility and encourage more participation. Even better would be to invite the first question from a women who is an early career researcher.
Various other examples of systematic problems exist. The good news is that over the past few years the awareness of the existence of these problems as well as biases has increased a lot. This development will continue in the future with the engagement of a growing number of women and allies. Because in the end, every person in the workplace benefits from a non-discriminatory, welcoming and diverse work environment. And workplaces themselves benefit from the diversity of viewpoints, personal engagement and the interaction between individuals.
The path ahead
Easing women’s path into science starts with awareness – awareness of stereotypes, biases, or systematic obstacles. Attending and engaging in discussions on these issues, as well as actively listening, demonstrates a sensibility for the topic. Speaking up when you encounter stereotypes and alike helps creating the feeling of belonging and of being taken seriously.
Although much more work is needed, today is for celebrating all achievements and successes regarding Girls and Women in STEM and their supporters. For the future, my hope is that we continue along this path, together as allies!
As a female from a working-class background, I don’t meet the stereotypical profile of a scientist. However, my main strengths and interests in school were always in maths and science, and
I was very lucky to be able to develop these interests by going to a secondary school which was a Science College. Biology, Chemistry and Physics were taught separately right from Year 7, and an emphasis was placed on the sciences and maths, with frequent science-related extra-curricular activities. I also think it helped that it was a girls’ school, so there was no risk of an imbalance of girls to boys in a class and no suggestion that “science isn’t for girls”. This resulted in a majority of girls choosing at least one science subject at A level, and a significant proportion focusing on the sciences and going on to study a science-related subject at university.
However, unfortunately, I have been discouraged from continuing in science in other areas of my life, with some comments related to sexism or classism. At one point I thought about studying medicine at university, but on mentioning this to a family member, I got the reply “So you’d be a doctor? Oh no, I don’t think that’s right. Why don’t you be a nurse?”. I also went to a group meeting at school with an external careers advisor for those considering medicine who simply gave us a monologue about how difficult it was to get in to medicine before saying “so the chances are slim to none basically” and that we should do something else. Thinking about this still annoys me, as she just assumed that we weren’t good enough without knowing a thing about us, and while medicine is very difficult to get into and requires a lot of hard work, the chances are definitely not none. Indeed, a significant number of girls from my school did go on to do a degree in medicine. I hope that, nowadays and in the future, careers advisors wouldn’t be so dismissive and would instead be encouraging of girls wanting to pursue a career in science and help them to see the opportunities available to them.
I later decided that medicine wasn’t for me, not due to the careers advisor or any other comments, but primarily because my strengths do not lie in hands-on practical science. I was the one who was disappointed when a teacher said that we would be doing a practical, when everyone else was pleased. I think that one of the reasons that I considered medicine was because it is one of the ‘traditional’ careers that are widely known about in the science field, and I wasn’t sure what careers I could go into with a pure science degree. Looking back, I now see this as an advantage to a pure science degree rather than a disadvantage because, although there is no set career route from these degrees, this means that there are many options to consider after university, and many doors are open to you. Lots of these are probably in areas that many would never have considered, or maybe even known about, prior to research and job hunting. This is due to the flexibility of science, the links between different areas and its many applications.
As I enjoyed all of my science A levels and wanted to learn more about all of them, I decided on a Natural Sciences degree, where I would be able to study modules of several different science subjects and choose what to specialise in as I progressed. Although I think that Natural Sciences is a little more widely known about now, most people that I spoke to at the time had never heard of it and assumed that it meant focusing on plants! Lots of people seemed interested in doing it themselves when they learned about it, and I hope that its profile as a degree continues to rise, as I feel it would be beneficial to many to have the opportunity to delay specialising until subjects have been studied at university level. I began in my first year by taking modules in Maths, Chemistry and Biology, and enjoyed all three (despite the dreaded weekly labs in Chemistry!) and continued with Maths and Chemistry into second year. After this, however, I began to struggle with aspects of Chemistry, and decided to not take it into third year and instead pick up an entirely new science subject in its place: Earth Sciences. This flexibility was the beauty of the Natural Sciences degree, and, despite only picking up Earth Sciences in my third year, I enjoyed both modules (especially the aspects related to climate) and gained among my highest marks in them.
After my degree, I went on to apply my maths skills to Earth Sciences by doing a PhD in Geophysics, something that I never would have thought about prior to picking up Earth Sciences as part of Natural Sciences. It focused on simulating the salt precipitation when carbon dioxide is injected into a saline aquifer, as a way of investigating whether the loss of injectivity and permeability caused by the salt precipitation prevented injection into saline aquifers being a feasible method of carbon capture and storage (CCS). This introduced me to coding, something that I’d never done before my PhD but proved to be both enjoyable and a very useful scientific skill that can be applied to an infinite number of problems. At school, something that may have put me off continuing to study science was that practical, hands-on experiments, which I wasn’t very confident in, seemed like the only way to apply science, but coding has shown me another way. I’m therefore very glad that coding is now being taught more widely to young people, both in schools and externally, and I hope that this continues.
At university, the imbalance at the top levels of academic science became clear to me: in every department I studied in, there were noticeably more male lecturers and professors than women, with one department having about five times as many men in these roles as women. This ratio was, however, was not nearly as clear at undergraduate or even postgraduate level, so I hope that ongoing work to encourage women in STEM has begun to make a difference, and that this will soon have an effect on lecturer and professor positions. It is important that this work continues and grows, however, both to encourage girls at school that they are capable of studying science at a higher level and going into a scientific career, and to ensure that women already working in science feel able to progress.
After my PhD, I knew that I wanted to continue to work in science, but I wasn’t sure that I wanted to continue in academia and do a post-doc. I was therefore drawn to a job in Applied Science at the Met Office as a way that I could use the scientific skills I had learned in my degree and PhD, especially coding, as a way to help to solve a variety of problems. The link to climate, which I had explored in my Earth Sciences modules in my degree and in my PhD, also appealed. Again, as a common theme with the routes I have gone down, a Met Office scientist isn’t something I would have thought about at school, as at that stage I associated the Met Office with only operational meteorology roles and didn’t consider the vital broader science that goes on. I think this is fairly common, judging by the number of comments I and others get along the lines of “So will we be seeing you presenting the weather on TV?” when we say that we work at the Met Office!
The main things I’ve learned throughout my scientific career to date are that studying science opens up an enormous range of career opportunities, and that the sciences are all inter-linked and skills and knowledge in one area can be applied to many others. The scientific options you choose in education may not always have a clear career path, but the flexibility of this is a good thing, and ensures that you have many different potential routes to go down, some of which you probably weren’t even aware of prior to research and jobhunting. Finally, as much as possible needs to be done at all levels to encourage girls and women to feel that opportunities in science are open to them and that they can achieve in science.
Although I haven’t been sure of my next step a lot of the time since leaving school, I’m sure that I’ve ended up in the best role for me, and it really is great when someone asks what you do, to be able to say, “I’m a scientist”.
Since 2015, I have been a post-doc in Mathematics at the University of Exeter. I am a climate scientist and a climate model developer. I co-founded the Women in Climate network in 2018.
I am in a STEM career because my interests have always been supported
There are three things that were instrumental for me entering STEM at university and working as an academic in STEM
I grew up interested in science and this interest was nurtured by my parents.
I was emotionally and financially supported while I was at university. I did not have to work retail, in a bar or restaurant, or in other employment while I was studying.
I am ambitious and I work hard.
This last point I would like to expand on. It might surprise you but I am not naturally gifted at science. Science has never been easy for me. Physics and Maths have always been the hardest for me to learn. But they are the subjects that interest me the most and spark my curiosity. I have always had to work hard and I often struggle. But this grit makes me suited to research. I am comfortable not understanding something and trying to work it out.
I acknowledge my privilege.
I grew up in a loving and supportive family. I come from an upper middle-class family. I am from a first world country. I am white. I do not have a disability. I identify as the same gender as I was assigned at birth. I am a straight. I am a happily married. My husband is a feminist. I own my own home.
All of these privileges I acknowledge. All of these privileges have played a role in my ability to work in academia and live in a country on the other side of the world from where I call home.
I am aware of my disadvantages.
I come from rural Australia. I went to my local high school. I did not have access to the education that many of my University peers had. I overcame this disadvantage by working hard. My educational story feeds my imposter syndrome.
But I am a women in a man’s world. This is unfortunately the reality in STEM today. However, my gender is not a disadvantage I need to overcome. Rather, our culture needs to change so that STEM is an inclusive environment for everyone. We have made a lot of progress in this area in the last few decades, but there is still a lot to do.
Women have all of the attributes needed to make formidable scientists. Women have all of the natural aptitudes for science that men have. Put aside outdated images of what a scientist looks like. Put aside the notion that a mother is the primary care-giver for her family. Put aside the centuries of men telling women they are inferior at science while not giving them equal rights and access to education. If you are in doubt about this because you have not experienced it, then listen to those who have and read more about it. A great place to start is Inferior by Angela Saini.
What does disadvantage women in STEM is:
Gender stereotypes that mean as girls our interests in science are not as supported as a boys would be.
We are under represented in our undergraduate and post-graduate degrees which can make us question if we belong.
There are fewer working women scientists, especially in senior positions, which impacts workplace culture and inclusion.
The women who do make it to the top have had to adapt to work place norms which favour cis straight white men, and may have significant privilege in terms of e.g., education.
What needs to change?
We need to support our future women and non-binary scientists:
destroy the gender stereotypes that pollute our children’s minds
encourage girls to explore science from an early age
support young women who choose to do STEM university degrees. Never joke about how many guys she will meet in Math class.
mentor these students and show them what working in STEM could mean for them
suggest to women students they may be suited to a PhD programs and post-docs.
We need to create educational institutes and work places that are diverse and inclusive:
support women PhD students to find post-docs or industry jobs. Tell your colleagues about your great students who are about to complete.
write strong recommendation letters and understand your unconscious biases while writing them.
We need to retain women in STEM:
close the pay gap: pay your female scientists the same as the men with equivalent experience.
promote women at the same rate as men, and ideally at a greater rate to help erode the bias toward men in senior positions
make it easy for both women and men to take parental leave and make it easy for them to return
advertise jobs in a way that encourages women to apply, then make sure the interview panel does not overlooked someone because of protected characteristics
ensure workplaces are free from bullying and harassment and that policies are inclusive for staff from all backgrounds.
There is nothing wrong with women. We do not need to fix women. We do not need to teach women how to speak or act to fit in with existing work place culture. The problem is stereotyping that feeds into work place culture.
What can I do to help?
Small things matter. Let women be heard. Do not dismiss them. Do not talk over them. Do not mansplain their ideas or opinions as though they are your own. Credit their good ideas. Call out microaggressions. Report inappropriate behaviour. Learn more about the challenges around diversity in science (e.g. there are many sessions at large conferences like EGU and AGU). Follow diversity and inclusion activists on social media.
Be an active ally: pick a cause and throw your support behind it:
Does encouraging school age girls to explore STEM careers interest you? Then get involved in local initiatives and visit schools.
Does reducing the number of women that leave STEM matter to you? Be a mentor. Get active in local networks. Start conversations about what you think should change in your workplace.
Acknowledge that changing workplace culture takes time. It is a long road so make sure you maintain your wellbeing first.
On International Day of Women and Girls in Science, I want to highlight that we have work to do to overcome the toxic gender stereotyping that impacts people’s choices to enter and remain in STEM careers. But never forget that we are making progress. Let that give you hope and ambition to help create change.