Lacking Diversity – House of Commons Science and Technology Committee 2017

Source: Twitter

What’s that you can hear? That is the sound of scientists across the UK slamming their heads against a desk repeatedly, because today the House of Commons announced the members of the Science and Technology Committee, and it doesn’t look good.

The Science and Technology Committee is in place to inform governmental policy and decision-making, and to ensure that these processes are founded on good science and evidence. You can imagine that for such a committee, devised to lend their expertise to critique and hold government to account surrounding matters concerning science in the UK, the House of Commons would be expected to gather MPs with scientific experience from diverse backgrounds. This would be the logical answer, to ensure that the issues facing science in its lack of diversity, climate change and Brexit, are properly addressed with careful consideration and experience. However, the Science and Technology Committee that was revealed today was as a sea of men, with only two committee members having any experience of science.

The committee made up of Norman Lamb MP, Bill Grant MP, Darren Jones MP, Clive Lewis MP, Stephen Metcalfe MP, Neil O’Brien MP, Graham Stringer MP and Martin Whitfield MP, lacks the diversity and background that is required to properly fulfil its role. With one of the main problems facing STEM industries being the lack of women, how can we expect this committee to consider this issue and value this concern when there isn’t any women sitting on the committee to provide this voice?

Another great issue facing science (and the world) is climate change. Therefore we should all feel safe in the knowledge that one of the newly announced members of the Science and Technology Committee is a climate change denier. Despite Graham Stringer, Labour MP, constituting 50% of the scientifically trained members on this committee, with a degree in Chemistry, Graham also is a trustee of the Nigel Lawson’s Global Warming Policy Foundation, a group that deny the dangers of climate change.

The reveal of the new committee isn’t reassuring, in the face of the threat of Brexit on STEM industries and the issues within science (such as the lack of women), the presence of a diverse and experienced committee would help to reassure STEM workers that the industry’s best interests would be looked after. However, this is not the case.

With a committee lacking the knowledge needed to fully understand science in the UK or the barriers that lead to inequality in STEM, how can we be sure that the Science and Technology Committee can do its job effectively? I am certainly not convinced.

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What is it like to be a young professional in Wales?

I’m going to take a break from the normal ‘women in STEM’ blog content to talk about something that has been on my mind for a really long time.  I want to talk about what it’s like to be a young professional in Wales, because as someone who is trying to shape a career, I face a dichotomy between wanting to have easy access to the routes to success and a passion to keep talent in Wales.

Wales doesn’t lack talent, we nurture it and built it (and then it leaves via the Severn Bridge and never comes back again).

There is a predictable career timeline for young people in Wales, as we grow up here, are educated here, and then move away for work. Because, as a country Wales struggles economical, with over a quarter of the Welsh population living in poverty and Wales has one of the highest youth employment rates in the UK. Shaping your career here is hard, and myself and my friends have often worked in jobs outside of our field whilst we wait around for relevant employment. When searching, there are often perfectly suitable jobs, or even amazing opportunities, in science communications, but they are all based in London and I categorically refuse to move to London.

This utter denial of London life is only slightly the result of a distain for the cramped and dusty city, and is mostly because, as a Welsh person, I want talent to be kept in (and drawn into) Wales. Building a career in Wales can be a bit of a battle, especially if you in a niche area like science communication and have the aspiration to become a science TV presenter; it would be easier to gather up my things and move to London where the opportunities are fruitful. But I really don’t want to be a part of the perpetual cycle of talent leaving Wales and talent seldom being attracted.

It’s not a ground-breaking statement to say that everything happens in London, and this certainly is true for my industry. My ultimate career goal is to present and work on science TV programmes, and a sizable proportion of science magazines, production companies and STEM organisations are based in and around London. Because of this, it would make sense to move to London as this would grant me access to a greater number of opportunities, but with a potent cocktail of a stubborn nature and a desire to stay in Wales, I have written off this option – at least for now.

However, I fear that this passion to keep working in Wales has an expiration date, especially will the potential ramifications of Brexit on the Welsh labour market. If building a career in Wales or keeping talent in Wales was hard before Brexit, I don’t know what it will be like when our economy isn’t supported by European funding. (So please don’t blame me if you see me ignoring my moral compass and moving to London in a few years’ time.)

I suppose this blogpost doesn’t achieve anything, it is merely a rant about the difficult career choices young people face in Wales. Because as I continue furthering my career in science communication, I feel that I am not only having to hurdle barriers facing women in science, but I feel like I have to ultimately face up to whether I want to sacrifice my morals and my passion for keeping talent in Wales to get there.

(If you weren’t a fan of this non-STEMinist talk, don’t worry, normal broadcasting will now resume.)

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Welsh Government new apprenticeships fail girls

Today, the Welsh Government announced that they are helping to support 1,000 high-quality apprenticeships, providing young people and adults a ticket to a graduate-level career, many of which are within STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths). Although these new apprenticeships are an excellent opportunity for 1,000 people, and offer a great alternative route into STEM careers, the Welsh Government has failed to even consider the barriers that face girls in apprenticeships – especially in STEM.

These new opportunities, made available by the Welsh Government with the support from the European Social Fund, include employment in a wide range of disciplines within STEM industries, including associate scientist, ICT and computing and engineering, but fail to put in place initiatives to ensure good female uptake of these high-quality STEM apprenticeships. This is a disappointing mistake, as girls are consistently underrepresented in STEM apprenticeships, making up under 4% of engineering apprenticeships in Wales. Because of this well-established lack of girls in STEM apprenticeships, frameworks need to be put in place to help address this, and the Welsh Government has failed to consider this.

There are several very complex reasons why girls don’t tend to take up apprenticeships outside of the stereotypical topics such as childminding, education and beauty. These reasons include a well-ingrained ideas of apprenticeships themselves, as typically apprenticeships are associated with boys, as they are considered hands-on, which girls are taught that they are not. And although apprenticeships offer a great alternative route into STEM, especially for student who don’t consider themselves as suited for an academic environment, they sadly are often thought of as something for ‘naughty boys’. This association is obviously harmful for apprenticeships in general, but that association ultimately excludes girls.

Not only does the gender gap in apprenticeships occur through indirect means, but also through the loss of equality in careers advice. Research by the City & Guilds Group found that only 17% of girls were encouraged to take an apprenticeship in school and that boys are twice as likely to take up an apprenticeship role.

Therefore the lack of this being taken into consideration when the Welsh Government announced these new opportunities, is thoroughly disappointing, especially after I gave evidence to the National Assembly for Wales in 2014 for their STEM inquiry. One of the points raised during the inquiry being the importance of STEM apprenticeships in filling the gap and how crucial it is to ensure equal engagement of girls and boys in STEM, which is a point that I feel has been looked over in this announcement.

By working with the organisations and businesses hosting these apprenticeships, and making them conscious of the lack of girls in STEM, as well as working closely with careers advice officers, the government could have helped to increase the number of girls who would take up these high-quality apprenticeships.

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Why do I want to give up my blog?

[Disclaimer:  there are so many amazing people in science who have been fantastic, but sadly its often the negative comments that affect you most]

For a while I have been struggling with feelings of wanting to delete everything, remove my blog, take down my YouTube channel, and resign myself to a non-sciencey job that I am not passionate about. Now this isn’t some huge existential crisis, where I am crumpling under the pressures of wanting to achieve, but the reason I feel like throwing in the towel on science communication and equality in STEM is honestly due to science itself. I feel exhausted by elitist attitudes.

This may be breaking news to you, but I don’t have a PhD and I don’t have a Masters in science. I did an undergraduate degree in neuroscience and loved it, and when I graduated I was walking into a competitive world where if I wanted to do a PhD, I would probably need a Masters degree. And a Masters costs £9,000. For some people, £9,000 is nothing, and they could find that in their back pocket. For me, someone from a working-class background, that is a lot of money, and therefore postgraduate education seemed inaccessible to me, and despite my passion for science I decided that academia would not be achievable. So, I now work in writing, PR and communications – some in science and some outside of science (because I need to pay my bills).

Because the letters after my name stop at BSc, I find (or at least I feel) that other people look down on me or judge me. I feel pressure to say, ‘my background used to be in neuroscience’, because despite adoring this area of research and writing about it, I feel like by not working in research that I am not entitled to say that my area of science is neuroscience.

A stand-out moment for me that summarises all of these feelings, was after a talk I did at a university about how we can help encourage young girls into science and keep women in STEM. At the end, students and staff from the university came up to me to discuss the lecture and ask me questions. One of the university staff asked me what area of science I worked in, and I responded with my typical ‘my background used to be in neuroscience’ response, feeling compromised and embarrassed about my lack of doctorate. And she responded with ‘used to be?!’ and a facial expression that was a potent cocktail of quizzical and disgust.

This interaction has stood out to me for several reasons:

  1. It made me feel like I wasn’t good enough to be part of the scientific community.
  2. It hit a nerve, as I feel insecure about my role in science.
  3. I feel passionate about science, and about sharing science through communications as well increasing the number of women in science – but this left me feeling like I didn’t deserve to do that.

This hasn’t been the only interaction that has left me perplexed about my role and my relevance in science.

I love communicating science and I love talking about science. After resigning the idea of academic research as a potential career, I decided to follow my passion of talking about science and began working towards a career in science journalism. I will be as bold as to say that I want to be ‘the Brian Cox of brains’.

In pursuit of this, I have created a YouTube channel and have written for science magazines, but my ultimate goal is to present or produce science documentaries. In stage two of my plan to infiltrate this industry, I contacted a production company with an idea of a science documentary – and I was so pleased when they liked my idea and invited me to talk about it further. During the exciting conversation, where it was mentioned how I was a brilliant and natural presenter, and the discussion about the documentary idea was full of compliments and enthusiasm from all sides, a comment was said to me that crushed me.

“The thing is, you don’t have a PhD so no one will take you seriously as a woman.”

And as ridiculous as that statement sounds, I get what they meant. As women, we need to work harder to be believed and we are often less likely to be taken seriously as an expert. But as someone who was just about to start this career, which was an alternative to a PhD, this shattered all of my hopes.

Is science only reserved for people with PhDs? Because, from what I have experienced, a lot of scientists feel like it is.

I am (at least for now) a stubborn enough person that I won’t be giving up on sharing science, trying to increase the number of girls in science, or helping to shape policy to support women in STEM. But is it incredibly disheartening to see elitist attitudes in science, when I am trying to open science up to more people.

Have you experienced something similar? If you have and would like to share your experience with me, please get in touch on mindfulofscience@gmail.com.

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Girl Scouts will ‘be prepared’ for careers in STEM

The Girl Scouts of the USA are encouraging their scouts to ‘be prepared’ for careers in STEM, by adding 23 new badges to be earned in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. With a severe lack of girls taking on STEM subjects after compulsory education, this is a fantastic move from the Girl Scouts. The new badges can be earned through programming robots, writing code, designing model race cards and being environmentally friendly during camping trips. This initiative was put in place by the Girl Scouts CEO, Sylvia Acevedo, to improve the exposure of STEM subjects to young girls, helping them to realise their potential in the areas.

In the UK, the equivalent of the Girls Scouts are the Brownie and Girl Guide groups, who can earn badges in many areas including cooking, crafts, world cultures, safety and science.

Traditionally these girl’s groups are often associated with crafting and community activities, and it is amazing to see that they are changing to encouraging young girls to interact with science. Young girls are equally as excited about science at a young age, but simply don’t see themselves in the industry and often aren’t inspired to pursue that career. By bringing science into their everyday lives, it helps to cement their confidence in their STEM abilities and help them to see their potential in these careers.

When I was younger, I was part of the local Brownie group and left fairly quickly as I found it completely uninspiring. I was a creative and an artistic child, but really wanted to learn new things and I think I would have enjoyed learning outdoor skills like map reading – it is certainly something I wish I knew now. Back then, girls didn’t really join the Scouts, and (in my experience) Brownie groups mainly did arts, crafts and put on plays for each other, which didn’t give me any new skills or put me in new roles outside of the stereotypes for girls. So I am so pleased to hear that the Girl Scouts and Girl Guide groups are making such an effort to encourage girls to think outside of typical gender roles, and work towards earning badges in science, technology, engineering and maths.

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