Sunday, March 8, 2020

Women in science: what's the issue?

The focus of International Women’s Day 2020 is on taking steps to help forge a gender equal world, raising awareness about bias and taking action for equality. Here, we share some of the highlights of our recent panel discussion held at the Element Six Global Innovation Centre, UK, which shined a light on some of the issues preventing women and girls from pursuing careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

On 11th February, in celebration of the International Day of Women and Girls in Science, Element Six and De Beers Group hosted a live panel discussion focusing on the topic of ‘Women and girls in science: what’s the issue?’. Katie Fergusson, Senior Vice President of Social Impact for De Beers, led the panel of fantastic role models that featured Dr Stephanie Liggins and Walter Hühn from Element Six, TV presenter and STEM activist Dr Shini Somara, and Aditi Lachman from the South African leadership incubator and charity WomEng.

Building the right foundations 

Despite a significant effort globally to encourage more girls and young women to select STEM as an academic path, only around 30% of female students globally are actually choosing to study related subjects. To kick things off, Katie Fergusson sought the experiences of the panellists to uncover how they made their way into the STEM-based careers they have today. A common theme across the panel was to do with the encouragement and exposure to science and engineering that they had from an early age. The panel agreed that in order to encourage more women and girls to consider STEM subjects, their passion needs to be fuelled from a primary school level.

For Aditi Lachman, the influence of her dad, who was in the construction industry, was paramount to her developing an interest in the area. Aditi says that she “fell into engineering by accident”, as only when she reached university and uncovered what civil engineering really entailed, did she realise that her understanding up until that point hadn’t really been representative. This misconception inspired her to step up and start to create a better education for young girls around engineering. Aditi’s work helps to give young girls the tools and information they need to understand engineering and the possibilities it could offer them.

Aditi, who received the Queen's Young Leaders Award in 2017, feels strongly that one of the best ways to spark a passion for exploring and discovering is to encourage more play. Teaching children from a young age that it’s ok to play, to try something, to get things wrong, to learn from that and try again, is a really simple way of helping to develop the mind-set that it’s ok to fail.

“Girls are not being trained to be okay with breaking stuff, and that's essentially what engineering is, right?  Science is being okay with failing and trying again.” – Aditi Lachman

Element Six CEO, Walter Hühn, highlighted that it isn’t uncommon for young children, both boys and girls, to worry about being ‘nerdy’ if they show interest in certain subjects at school. Talking about the outreach work the Element Six employees do, where they go into schools to conduct workshops focused on science and diamond, Walter mentioned how valuable it is to use those opportunities to demonstrate to the children how the learnings can be applied to real-time issues and trends in today’s world.

“Talking about the most important issues that need fixing, like environmental and sustainability challenges, and making it clear which roles the children could play in resolving these in the future, through choosing to pursue STEM subjects. Telling them what it means as a scientist, as a technical individual, female or male, to work in these fields.” – Walter Hühn

By enabling children to see the bigger picture of how maths or science can fit into helping to resolve real global issues, the worry of looking nerdy or being made fun of could be replaced with a desire to make a difference, and give them a real sense of purpose.

Embracing failure, not fearing it

Each of the panellists reflected that they have either personally experienced or know someone who has been affected by the fear of failing, or being seen as a failure. Dr Shini Somara spoke passionately about the impact of the perfectionist mentality that is almost programmed into girls from a young age. It dually makes women and girls want to do their best, whilst also making them overly critical about how they come across, ultimately leading to them remaining silent.

The impact of this fear of failing was highlighted when Shini described, “I've had young students tell me that in their maths class, if they're one of few girls, they're scared to put their hand up when they know the right answer, just in case they're wrong”.  

It is this same fear of getting it wrong that remains present throughout school, higher education and into the workplace, where pressures can contribute to preventing women from putting themselves into situations where they may be perceived to fail. One such pressure of particular relevance to women in STEM careers, who are often in a minority within a team, is that oftentimes they are championed so much that they can inadvertently become a ‘mascot’ for their team. In this position, a woman’s fear of failing can be heightened as they now feel that if they were to fail, it would not only be a reflection on themselves, their own, but could also let their team or business down.

Changing the perception of what failure is, encouraging it as part of the learning process and teaching children that it’s not something to be afraid of is imperative in making sure the next generation of scientists and engineers feel confident to experiment, explore and flourish.

“When I was at university, I studied mechanical engineering at bachelor level, and I just fell in love with the subject.  Being taught how to unravel the secrets of how this world functions was just mind-blowing to me.”
Dr Shini Somara

Breaking the silence

For many women in STEM roles, one of the common challenges they face is making themselves heard. In line with the fears outlined above, it can be daunting to step into a room and assertively share thoughts or technical expertise, and even harder to raise a concern or question a point made by a more experienced or senior team member.

Shini hosts a weekly podcast called ‘Scilence’, which was launched on International Women’s Day in 2018. Her motivation for creating the podcast was to foster an open an honest space for women in STEM to talk about the experiences they are going through, that they perhaps don’t feel able to speak about freely in the workplace.

Shini commented, “being able to identify what the issues are and articulate them, because I think that has been the problem, is why I was inspired to start Scilence as a podcast. And, as a result of having these very frank discussions with women who are both at the start of their STEM career and very senior, it's been astounding how everyone's going through the same kind of challenges.”

Initiatives like the ‘Scilence’ podcast are helping women to speak openly about the challenges they’re facing, and with the right support from male and female champions, it is possible for significant progress to be made within organisations to further encourage this openness and transparency.

Three key factors to encourage more girls and women into STEM

“The young people are the people of our future. They're going to be driving Industry 4.0, and they're coming through now, so what is the engagement we need to do to break down those barriers that are stopping them from continuing?” – Dr Stephanie Liggins

1. Role models

The panel spoke passionately about the importance of role models in shaping STEM careers. Exposure to role models from as early as primary school age can have a direct impact on the types of careers that young women, and men, go on to pursue. Role models can help not only to inspire, but to develop confidence, as well as core communication and behavioural skills, that are invaluable throughout university, early careers and in more senior roles. Seeing someone succeed and knowing that could be possible for you is an incredibly empowering experience.

2. Equal opportunities for STEM careers  

A pivotal point of the panel discussion came when questions about positive discrimination and gender quotas were posed to the panel. The audience highlighted awareness of gender quotas that are applicable across global businesses and that recruitment decisions could be tainted by gender targets.  

Element Six’s Dr Stephanie Liggins presented a well-balanced response on her own approach to recruitment that addresses some important topics including giving men and women the same exposure to the same opportunities.

“I look at whether an applicant has the basic skills that I need, if they have the personality profile that will fit well with the team, and if they can bring something different.  I don't mind where they come from.  I don't mind who they are.  Obviously, their technical background has an influence, but it's about the right person for the right role. 

It's not about trying to fix a quota of getting 50% men or 50% women, but giving everyone the same exposure to all opportunities and seeking to find the right person for the right role.”

It’s important for those people coming into their first roles in STEM to know that they are not going to be blocked by barriers such as gender quotas.

3. Nurturing young minds

Each member of the panel expressed the influence of their childhood and home life when growing up on the careers they are pursuing today. The support and encouragement of schools, families and businesses like WomEng, Element Six or De Beers who actively go out into communities to promote STEM subjects, can play a significant part in igniting that career-driving passion.

“By studying those scary subjects, you could be in the running to solve some of the world’s global issues”
– Dr Shini Somara

You can watch the full panel discussion here >

Read more from Dr Stephanie Liggins on ‘Why so few women in STEM?’ here >



This year’s International Women’s Day focuses on the #EachforEqual campaign, that labels equality as a business issue, not a women’s issue. The #EachforEqual goal is a powerful one, and one that aligns strongly with the belief of the panel that men need to be as much a part of the gender conversation as women do. Everyone needs to be accountable for their words and their actions, and men, women and businesses need to be unified in order to forge a gender equal world.

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