As part of Black History Month, we’re highlighting some of the issues faced by underrepresented groups, and amplifying Black voices in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM).

We spoke to the Chair of the British Science Association (BSA), Gisela Abbam about the ongoing issue of the lack of diversity in STEM, what changes she would like to see, and ways the BSA can help to achieve this.

Gisela also highlights some of her standout Black History Month campaigns, projects and initiatives to get involved in.

Where did your interests in health and science originate from?

I didn’t pursue science at University and do not have any formal training in the discipline. Instead, my passion for science stemmed from personal experiences whilst working for local government in policy and strategy.

I was involved in a car accident and after spending so much time in and out of hospital, I began to have a real interest in health.

I had further health issues which spurred me to become a health advocate. These challenges had ignited my passion – I wanted to inspire others and I wanted to make a difference to people’s lives at a national and international level.

Why do you think diversity in Science, Technology Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) sectors is important?

I am strongly passionate about improving healthcare around the world, particularly where access is limited. Achieving this global goal is only possible with a truly diverse STEM workforce. By unlocking the potential of the whole population, mobilising ideas in the broadest sense, and having a sector representative of society, we will be better placed to tackle any new challenge the future may hold.

Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics plays a huge part in each and every one of our lives - whether we notice it, or not. From the food we eat, our healthcare, and even the technology you are using to access this blog.

All people, no matter their background or circumstances should feel they are able to participate in STEM, and if they choose to, pursue a career in these sectors.

Unfortunately, those from traditionally minoritised backgrounds, including women, disabled people, and those from minority ethnic backgrounds continue to be chronically underrepresented in STEM.  

What changes would you like to see to tackle the lack of diversity in STEM sectors? This could be from individuals or organisations within the sector, or more widely e.g., Government.

One recommendation from the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on diversity and inclusion in STEM’s latest report on equity in the UK’s STEM workforce, is for the UK Government to lead a “STEM diversity decade of action” campaign to drive long-term change.

This would signal a bold, long-term vision for a diverse and equitable STEM sector that transcends a Government’s term, or a chief executive’s tenure.

If you are reading this as an individual, I’d suggest carefully researching the organisations you apply to. During my career journey, I aligned myself with people and organisations who are open-minded and value diversity in its people and ideas. I sought inspiration from those who have successfully overcome barriers, and built a strong network.

What are your ambitions for the British Science Association over the next decade as it heads towards its bicentenary? How might the BSA help to achieve the changes you would like to see within the science engagement sector?

This year, against the backdrop of a global pandemic and the climate emergency, the BSA launched its new 10-year strategy – ultimately, a future where science is more relevant, representative and connected to society.

Within this strategy, one line particularly resonated with me “[a] future [where], everyone has the potential to contribute, whether it’s through the ideas they engage with, the jobs they do or the lifestyles they lead.”

Like sports, literature or arts, science is central to our society, but not everyone feels empowered or even able to participate in it. Becoming a sector that is truly relevant, representative and connected to society will shape and advance science, and in turn, positively impact all of our lives.

This is a bold strategy, and at first glance may seem unrealistic or overambitious for a single organisation, but we don’t envision achieving this alone.

I hope that as the BSA approaches its bicentenary, we, alongside the science engagement sector (and beyond) will continue to influence, encourage and challenge each other to develop and improve our Equality, Diversity and Inclusion practices and reach new audiences.

Have you come across any Black History Month campaigns, projects or initiatives that you’d like to share and celebrate?

There are lots of great networks and campaigns that are aimed at addressing inequalities in STEM, and are there to support traditionally minoritised groups. I’ve come across a few fantastic Black History month campaigns, such as The Royal Academy of Engineering’s Black History Month 2021 campaign. This includes a variety of resources and practical ways to get involved, including a podcast series, an interactive social media campaign and programmes to apply to.

Another great resource is a video by The Physiological Society on ‘Being Black in Physiology’, shedding a light on the lack of (less than 1%) STEM university professors that are Black.