Where is the ‘W’ in STEM?

It’s 1995. Six years after the fall of communism in Poland, my mum is starting university at the Warsaw University of Technology. She is one of five women in a class of approximately one hundred, a sadly typical reality for women pursuing degrees in mechanical engineering.

The numbers have risen since then, but they’re still not nearly where they should be. Why are we, as a society, still so far behind? What is stopping us from creating work environments of equal value and opportunity for all genders?

If we are to create change, we must become educated. We have to learn to recognise our privileges – as we all have some – and use them as a platform.

That’s exactly what Professor Polly Arnold, the Chair of Chemistry here at The University of Edinburgh, was doing when she created the film “A Chemical Imbalance.”  With funding from the Royal Society through the Rosalind Franklin Prize, Arnold has commissioned a book, a film, and a website.

Directed by Siri Rodes and Marie Liden, the film is about women in academia. As Arnold put it, it is a “call to action to make your department a better place.” The movie not only makes information accessible in the form of an entertaining short film, but it also educates the public and inspires us to make a difference.

On October 10th, for Ada Lovelace day, the School of Chemistry hosted a screening of the film followed by a panel discussion.

As Arnold introduced her creation, she made sure to acknowledge the many successful female academics in history (or herstory. Pun intended).

She credited Ida Freund for coming up with the idea of baking periodic table cupcakes to motivate her students, a set of which, of course, had been baked for the occasion.

Arnold also talked about the Edinburgh Seven with Sophia Jex-Blake as the leader. As the first women to enrol in any university in Britain, they faced many challenges such as being prevented from taking exams, therefore being forced to graduate without a degree.

Jex-Blake incited riots to disrupt this outdated tradition. While it might not seem appealing to take exams now, the “Seven against Edinburgh” fought for the privilege that we now share. Although these women were ultimately stopped from receiving their degrees, their legacy is monumental.

The panel discussion was stimulating as each scientist contributed stories from their own experiences. Topics from “feminism” becoming the new f-word to unconscious bias were discussed, and the discussion was not limited to chemistry. The panel examined the struggles of women in IT and research.

What was missing was an analysis of the many intersections of feminism with the panel neglecting to review minority struggles to the necessary extent.

Progress has been made, but as we appreciate the things we have gained and honour those who fought to get them, we need to remember that there is more work to be done.

The reasons are infinite and intertwined, but the results are clear, women in STEM continue to be largely underrepresented, especially in high positions.

The 2016 WISE Women in STEM Workforce campaign illustrated that women make up just 21 per cent of the core STEM workforce and as little as 8 per cent of engineering professions. Countless more studies are depicting this disparity, but as a society, we remain uninformed and reluctant to empower women.

We blame it on nature – as if women just aren’t interested in such intellectually demanding careers. Believe me, when I say, we are.

We are taught from a very young age that problem-solving isn’t for us. Well-meaning parents are much more likely to discourage girls from climbing trees or assist them if they’re persistent. At the same time, little boys are encouraged to not only climb but to figure out, for themselves, the best way to get to the top.

This is why we need accessible forms of education. In a perfect world, we would all find the time and energy to be informed on all issues, but such an endeavour is practically impossible.

Compelling films, like “A Chemical Imbalance,” and stimulating discussions, like the one between the panel, make education easy and that is how we, as a society, can diminish prejudice.

Of course, destroying injustice is no simple task. The issues themselves are complex and deeply rooted in culture and society; therefore only adjustments to social structures can bring success.

Change is slow and tiresome. It makes many of us uncomfortable as we march into uncharted territory, but it is highly valuable. It’s time to become informed about the issues our peers are facing and to use our opportunities to help minimise them.

Image: Samuel Zellar

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