Friday 11th February marks the International Day of Women and Girls in Science. It is a day to recognise the critical role that women and girls play in science and technology.
A significant gender gap persists at all levels of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) disciplines worldwide.
Despite the fact women have made tremendous progress towards increasing their participation in higher education, they are still under-represented in these fields.
To celebrate the day, Dynamic Business spoke to women working within STEM fields to see what has changed and what needs to be done differently.
What is your background?
Natasha Rawlings, Investment Manager, Uniseed: “I am a lapsed tech entrepreneur and now a startup investor in “deep tech” (or tech that comes out of a lab).
“My fund works with the four largest universities and the CSIRO, so I get to see the latest inventions that can change our world for the better. I am also a long-time university accelerator and incubator mentor, helping get young businesses, sometimes student and researcher-led, off the ground.
“I don’t have a science background, but I love learning and have a strong operational background developing and launching products.”
Maria Halasz, CEO and Managing Director of Anagenics Limited: “I currently run a consumer health company, Anagenics Limited, listed on the ASX. We develop and market anti-ageing and longevity technology-based products.
“Previously, our company was solely focused on research and development, and following the development of a new technology in hair loss, we are now in the process of commercialising it, amongst others.
“Before that, I spent ten years in corporate finance specialising in biotech, medical devices and generally life sciences. My educational background in biological sciences (BSc Microbiology) and an MBA.”
Jade Pallett, Chief Technology Officer, Zoono Global: “I have always enjoyed science but didn’t realise my interest in microbiology until my first degree in Bioveterinary Science.
“On my industrial placement year in a laboratory on-site in a busy veterinary hospital, I really found microbiology as my niche subject. On completion of my degree, I went into full-time work within a veterinary microbiology laboratory.
“During this time, I completed my master’s degree in Clinical Microbiology and Infectious Diseases through the University of Edinburgh. I have since worked in environmental and biocidal microbiology and am currently Chief Technology Officer for Zoono.”
Based on what you’ve seen, how has women’s participation in STEM fields changed over the last 5-10 years?
Natasha Rawlings: “Ten years ago I was a startup entrepreneur in the tech startup space, with two male co-founders.
“Back then, it was completely male-dominated. At pitch events, or community get-togethers, I could pretty much count women on one hand – we were always 10per cent or much less of an audience.
“At pitch events, one in ten was a woman (yes, I used to count). It was rare to see any women on panels, and if there was one, it was usually Dr Michelle Deaker from One Ventures! The industry was not doing a lot to change this, and when looking for investment, angel groups and VCS were always men.
“I am glad to say this has really changed for the better, organisations that emerged – like Heads Over Heels, Springboard and Scale Investors around 7 – 8 years ago – not only helped women directly but began to shine a light on the inequality in the space.
“I think they encouraged the broader ecosystem to do some navel-gazing. Inequality for women entrepreneurs is not solved, but what has changed is the amount of women-led startups now around. It’s currently about 10 per cent, higher at 14 per cent before the pandemic. Unfortunately, and as usual, women have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic-led economic downturn. Startup is not immune here.”
Maria Halasz: “I do see some changes but not enough. Girls seem to do really well in science in primary school and some in high school but end up in non-STEM degrees too often.
“If they do a science or engineering degree, they rarely end up on the top of the tree of their profession. Many girls absolutely love maths early on but are conditioned not to orient towards engineering degrees.
“From my experience, it is driven by societal conditioning. Nevertheless, it has become a lot better, not the least as it has become more acceptable for men to share domestic duties.
“Sharing child care is the single most important factor in women succeeding in any career. I am optimistic but would like to see more female scientists as Tik-Tok influencers too.”
Jade Pallett: “I think women in STEM is something that has been widely promoted over the last decade and is gaining traction.
“I think there is an increased level of interest from young women and more opportunities being presented to enter into the world of STEM. In addition to this, I believe there are more and more women within senior roles in STEM, creating positive role models for the younger generations.
“Using statistics from 2009-2019, WISE has estimated that within the STEM workforce in the UK, more than 29 per cent will be women by 2030. Currently, women make up around 24 per cent of the STEM workforce in the UK (STEM Women, 2021).”
How important is female participation in STEM fields?
Natasha Rawlings: “Having a background in science enables you to approach problems with a certain discipline and insight.
“It is vitally important that women are entering the workforce from STEM disciplines at universities so that men and women are entering the workforce in equal ratios, and then staying and getting promoted equally too.
“This is so, at the most basic level, we have neural diversity which means there is a chance of being able to solve problems and overcome challenges. Neural diversity can come from many things but in my mind must include gender.
“We will need many viewpoints at the table to solve the world’s wicked problems – solutions to meet climate change and global pandemics will come from labs and diverse teams.”
Maria Halasz: “How important is female participation in any field in society? When you reduce female participation you reduce access to 50 per cent of the talent.
“More girls in STEM would mean more talent, more innovation, more scientific advances and better societies.
“I’m not saying that all girls should be scientists or engineers, but unless we remove the ‘it’s too hard for girls’ thinking from software development or electrical engineering, or leadership in these fields, we accept that we don’t have the best, only the best of the boys. Which is also true for our society in general.”
Jade Pallett: “Allowing women to be given equal opportunities to both purse and succeed within the world of STEM ensures a talented and diverse workforce, prevents bias in these fields and also within the products and services they provide, enhances female economic security and narrows the gender pay gap.
“Having women within the leading roles within industry and at the forefront of research and development allows for the next generations of women to clearly see what is achievable within STEM, and to encourage them to pursue their own goals.”
What are some major boundaries for women in science?
Natasha Rawlings: “I think the boundaries for women in science start at home, and then early school years with girls, and that gender bias continues on to high school and then university where women are entering degrees at a quarter of what men do.
“When those women enter the workforce, they are almost twice as likely to find roles that are non-STEM based. How crazy and awful is that. The pay gap has something to do with it, but the rest, I imagine, is very unsupportive management and companies.
“At universities in science, it is pretty hard for women to get ahead, and in fact, I think the glass ceiling is lower and thicker in this sphere than in many parts of the workforce. This, in part this is due to long hours in labs, where experiments are run, and there is not a lot of scope for the flexibility a family needs.
“There is also the ‘mummy penalty’ that plays out – women who leave for a time in early child years just don’t get their footing on the ladder again.”
Maria Halasz: “Much has changed since I was a science student some 30 years ago. At that time you had to fight the perception that science and engineering were for boys.
“Today, you are fighting with a different setup expectations on girls derived from pressure from family, society and sometimes the peer pressure built up by our social media/influencer culture.”
Jade Pallett: “There are some key factors which are believed to contribute to the gender gaps in STEM.
“These include gender stereotypes, fewer female role models for young women to look up to, STEM culture being male-dominated in many areas and a lack of confidence instilled during school years, discouraging females to go on and succeed within STEM.”
Conversely, what are some drivers of women entering science professions?
Natasha Rawlings: “I think everyone understands that the future of the planet, and therefore future employment, will need scientists.
“Business will need people with STEM degrees – parents understand this. Young women realise this, and that is why university numbers are increasing, but the hard road to science in the school system discourages many girls who think they are just no good at STEM.
“Everyone is intellectually curious about the world we live in, and women for many reasons are quite interested in changing the world for the better (I think this has a lot to do with socialisation – I don’t like putting that on biology). I think the general public feeling, especially during a pandemic and a climate crisis, is that science will save the world. Women and men want to help out equally in this regard.
“And of course, there are daughters like my colleagues’ who is beginning her first year at university studying Physics. When questioned “Why this and not something else”, she said, “It’s hard – I want the challenge”. Hearing that really made my day.”
Maria Halasz: “More successful role models for girls in science and engineering would do wonders. Actively supporting girls, not only mentoring but sponsoring them in their scientific or engineering careers, would make a significant difference.
“Government programs specifically provide funding for female STEM participation (some already happening).”
Jade Pallett: “There has been a real push in recent years to support women and to encourage young women into choosing the STEM pathway. It is a movement that is gaining traction and one that I fully support.
“There are initiatives to give both the skills and the confidence to success within STEM subjects starting from a young school ages. Improving the entire education pathway to make it more accessible to young women, actively working to attract, recruit and retain women into university degree pathways that enable a career into STEM and improving the job hiring, retention and promotional pathways available.
“I also believe with the rise of more women in strong, leading roles within the industry allows for younger women to see a career within STEM as a more attainable goal.”