In episode two of Gray Matter, get to know your neurones – small things with big responsibilities.
In my last blogpost, One-way ticket to Science Capital, I talked about the importance of trying to make science accessible to those not from a science background. So, I have decided to tackle this problem myself, and embark on a new project – Gray Matter.
I wanted to start a venture that stripped down scientific matter to the bones and made it tangible to the general public. I aimed to create a series of YouTube shorts which help people from a none-scientific background to access an area of science which can often be seen as quite academic, and turn it into something less intimidating.
So I have created Gray Matter, a series of regular five minute videos that will explore new topics of neuroscience in a way that is understandable to those who have never studied the subject before.
Unsurprisingly, as it is one of my biggest passions in life, this project will also help to raise the profile for women in STEM. By presenting the series, I want people to learn something new about neuroscience; and, without even realising it, learn it from a woman.
One of the most powerful ways of increasing the representation of women in STEM is to simply show up. By getting women to talk about science in the public sphere, we can help to re-address the balance. 70% of the world still associate being a scientist with being a man, so let’s show women doing science to correct this!
To help improve the number of women in STEM seen by the general public, Gray Matter will also feature interviews with women in the industry. They will add their specialist knowledge to my series, and help to raise the profile for research done by women in STEM, which can often be under-publicised.
Please join me on a journey to talk all things brain and crack all things cranium, bringing Science Capital into the home and raising the profile for women in STEM.
You can catch the first episode of Gray Matter here:
In the first episode of Gray Matter, we are getting to grips with brain basics, taking a look at what goes on inside your head.
Scientific thinking doesn’t really come into everyday processing of young children. A child isn’t going to dissect the physics of the ball they are throwing, or the biology of their pet hamster, or the mechanics of the toys they are playing with.
For kids, the introduction of scientific thinking and participation in science relies upon a parent-child interaction, they need someone to bring science to them. And some children are significantly more likely to have science brought to them than others – inline with a concept called Science Capital.
Science Capital is the likelihood that a young person will interact with science, and the levels of Science Capital are often interlaced with social factors. Class, race and gender all play a huge role in how likely a child is to interact with science on a daily basis.
If you are from a family where you are related to someone who is in the scientific industry, are middle-class, white, or male, you are significantly more likely to be encouraged to think scientifically or talk about science than those who are not.
This means that a very large proportion of the population is less likely to experience Science Capital. But why is this a problem?
The more a child interacts with science or science thinking at home, the more likely they are to have confidence in those skills in the classroom; and they are more likely to consider STEM as a potential career path for them.
The lack of Science Capital for those from broad classes in society contributes (along with many other factors) to the STEM workforce being heavily male dominated, and constructed of those from the same background – white and middle class.
This is a huge problem as a lack of diversity can affect the quality of scientific output, because there is only one perspective being brought to the same problem. Science is not a case of ‘too many cooks spoil the broth’ – we need as many people as possible, from a range of backgrounds and with a variety of perspectives, to solve big issues.
Therefore lack of Science Capital for those who don’t normally interact with science needs to be addressed. Otherwise, we will continue to produce scientists who all come from a similar background and will address scientific hurdles from a similar perspective.
Here is the big question; how do we generate Science Capital?
Firstly, we need to get parents talking about science. If you don’t have a parent or relative who is a scientist, this doesn’t mean you cannot experience Science Capital. We need to give parents the tools to talk about science at home, whether that is because they saw a documentary or program on TV, or whether that is because they have taken their child to a museum.
There is a timeline of families being lost to a lack of Science Capital. If you grew up with a lack of Science Capital and don’t feel confident in discussing science, you would be less likely to talk to your own children about science.
By helping science become more accessible (and less intimidating) to adults, you are giving them the keys to Science Capital. If they feel comfortable going to a science museum and interacting with the exhibits, without concern that they are doing it wrong, they will talk to their children about science. This will make their child feel that they can also interact with the exhibits, without concern that they are doing it wrong.
However, stereotypes also play a big role in Science Capital. Even if you give the tools to parents to make them feel like they can talk about science conformably, they are significantly more likely to talk to boys about science than girls.
At a science museum, studies found that parents were three times more likely to discuss the exhibits with boys than they were with girls (Crowley et al. 2001).
Not only do we need to ensure that parents feel confident talking to science with their children to help develop more Science Capital, we also need to make sure that they are aware of their learnt social bias to ensure high quality Science Capital.
So lets generate more interactive science museums, which target parents and children equally, and are accessible to those from working class backgrounds – so that we can all get on board to Science Capital.
If you have followed my blog for even the shortest period of time, you might of heard me ramble on about the issues with gendered toys and how these can affect how children interact with science.
Toys are heavily gendered and are marketing to boys and girls – ultimately separating the types of toys that girls and boys are likely to play with. Boys are significantly more likely to own toys which involve building or problem solving, whereas girls are significantly more likely to own toys which are related to fashion, beauty or homemaking.
Science toys are often also gendered, with the science toys for girls often revolving around beauty or make up, rather than the traditional chemistry or physics sets which are marketed towards young boys. How great would it be if a large toy chain would make a science toy which featured female scientists? Well – it could be on the horizon.
A set of unique LEGO figurines had been submitted to LEGO Ideas to be potentially be made into actual toys, and I am very excited about them. Maia Weinstock submitted her plan for a set of LEGO figures which would feature five notable NASA pioneers, helping to educate adults and kids about women in STEM history.
The sets would feature:
Katherine Johnson, mathematician and space scientist: A longtime NASA researcher, Johnson is best known for calculating and verifying trajectories for the Mercury and Apollo programs — including the Apollo 11 mission that first landed humans on the moon.
Sally Ride, astronaut, physicist, and educator: A physicist by training, Ride became the first American woman in space in 1983. After retiring as a NASA astronaut, she founded an educational company focusing on encouraging children — especially girls — to pursue the sciences.
Nancy Grace Roman, astronomer: One of the first female executives at NASA, Roman is known to many as the “Mother of Hubble” for her role in planning the Hubble Space Telescope. She also developed NASA’s astronomy research program.
Mae Jemison, astronaut, physician, and entrepreneur: Trained as a medical doctor, Jemison became the first African-American woman in space in 1992. After retiring from NASA, Jemison established a company that develops new technologies and encourages students in the sciences.
It would be fantastic be to have a set of toys which promote science to girls, depict amazing women in STEM and promote the history of women in science (who are often forgotten) – let alone those toys to be made by one of the most famous toy companies in the world.
If you want to see these sets made, you need to vote for them! Vote for them here.
I had two things to look forward to in Paris on Wednesday July 6, Wales played in the semi finals of the EUROs and I gave a lecture at the European Space Agency.
The ESA are hosting a lecture series which aims to open up the world of their staff to themes beyond their daily work. Each lecture looks at different topics, such as economics, biology or even talks from explorers of the world’s poles!
My lecture in the ‘Beyond Space’ series talked about (surprise, surprise) the lack of women in STEM; looking at the causes of the loss of women from the industry and what the ESA staff could do to contribute to the movement.
The representation of women at the ESA is fairly typical in the STEM industries, with a pretty low number of women making up employees and very few women making up the higher pay-grade roles.
Staff from different departments and backgrounds came to the lecture, and in the discussion afterwards it highlighted the importance of everyone working towards the same goal. In any organisation, it is as vital that personnel in the recruitment process involve themselves in the conversation about women in STEM as much as the scientists and engineers.
The ESA has done some great work to help address the issue of the lack of women in STEM, such as hosting an annual GirlsDay. The event gives girls the opportunity to see what technology and space are all about; This was definitely reflected in the staff’s attitude to my talk.
As much as I would love to talk about women in STEM and be greeted with a positive reception, unfortunately this is often not the case. When talking about any women’s issue, whether that be society-wide or industry specific, there is often a backlash or you are met with people blocking their ears.
But the staff at the ESA were incredibly enthusiastic about the topic and eager to get involved – nothing could be better than a multi-national organisation like the European Space Agency weighing in on the discourse!
My lecture covered a range of topics – focusing on the unconscious or more subtle forms of sexism which hold back women and girls in STEM (such as Stereotype Threat and Science Capital). As well as showing some examples of the good and bad campaigns which have tried to encourage young girls into science.
The only way we can start making a difference is if we get as many people to chip-in as possible, from all departments and all rungs of the ladder. I really look forward to see what the ESA does next in terms of aiding more girls to STEM and I am excited to see how the staff react and get involved.
(On a another note, Wales lost in the semi-finals and I flew back from Paris surrounded by very proud, yet melancholy, Welsh people)
I am getting to that stage in life where my friends are having kids, and that means I am buying gifts, toys and books. This task has become increasingly more arduous after I started blogging about gender roles.
When perusing the shelves, I try to think about the bigger picture. If I am buying for a friend’s little girl, I think about the amount of pink, fluffy and typically ‘girly’ things they will be receiving this birthday, and wondering if I can combat the effects of this with the gift of building blocks. Or if I am buying books for my friend’s little boy, I look through at the characters and assess the integrity of the female characters in the book. In short, it takes me a very long time to buy presents.
Recent visits to the kid’s section of the book shop have caused me to leave with my head in my hands. Although there is so much work going on to raise awareness for the importance of representation in books for children, this section of the book shop is saturated with gender stereotypes and it saddens me.
Books are a way of opening up boundaries and exploring new realities for children. Books create new worlds and adventures for the reader, helping to make their most unachievable dreams into an almost tangible reality. But it seems that books aimed at boys open up different worlds than the books aimed at girls.
Science and space books perpetuate the idea that these realms are for boys, by rarely featuring girls or women as protagonists or even background characters. Just a short look through this section leaves me tutting in despair.
My latest search for birthday presents for my friend’s children left me exasperated. It feels like despite the amount of research about the importance of considering gender roles when creating toys and books for children, representation is an afterthought.
I encourage you to look at what you are buying your children and look at who is featured in the books they are reading. Because the world those books may be opening up to them on the pages, may be reinforcing the fact that that world might not include them.
And when I say look at what you are buying, I mean really look. Even though shops are starting to stop separating their toy departments in to boys and girls sections, it can still be really obvious who the toys are designed for.
I was stopped in my tracks during one of my shopping trips by this toy display. Even though these toys don’t exactly say ‘boys first lab’ or ‘girl’s first lab’, you can instantly tell who these toys are aimed at.
Not only are they differentiating their science toys for different genders, but the types of science they are aiming at boys and girls is very different. The pink packaging immediately is associated with girls, and the science kits they are marketing to them involve beauty and cosmetics; because that is the kind of science girls would want to do [insert sarcasm here].
But what can we do about it? When you see example of this make sure you shout about it. Tweet it, share it and make yourself heard. Tag the publisher or campaigners like Let Toys be Toys to make it known that you are not happy about it.
Dr Seuess said: “The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go.”
But with the gendered books content we are giving future generations, only half of the population will be going to more place – and the other half will be left behind.
(I won’t be going into space, but I will be doing something incredibly exciting.)
- Women make up just 12.8% of the STEM workforce, and their representation has only increased by 0.2% in the last four years.
- Women make up just 13% of physics faculty members and earn up to 20% of physics bachelor’s degrees.
- Women make up 9% of the engineering workforce and only 6% of registered engineers and technicians are women.
- Women make up just 15% of the astronomers worldwide.
These figures need to be processed in several different ways. We first need to value that these statistics reflect social issues in society that are holding back women and preventing them from entering these industries. But we also need to appreciate what impact these figures have on science itself.
If we ignore the social aspects of inequality (for just a moment) and simply look at the effects that inequality has on the economics and quality of science, it becomes apparent that holding back women in the industry, holds back the industry itself.
Women are significantly more likely to be employed below their skill set, and therefore we have an untapped resource of talent. It is thought that if we actually started harnessing women to their full potential, the UK could generate £23 billion. This phenomena also applies to science, imagine if all the women who were employed below their skill set in STEM were allowed to reach their full potential?
Inequality also greatly impacts on scientific research itself. Research has shown that if you simply increase the diversity of your workforce, you will create better scientific research as you are bringing more perspectives to solve the same problem.
Therefore is it fantastic that the European Space Agency is including a talk about women in STEM in their Beyond Space lecture series. Not only does addressing these issues raise awareness for them, but it could have a wider effect on the way we value how social structures interact with the quality of scientific research and how they impact on the economic future of science.
Moreover, when we address the issues that face women, such as domestic violence, we aren’t saying that they don’t happen to men.