Diversity is a subject that comes up time and time again whenever we’re talking about science. Diversity of gender, diversity of ethnicity, diversity of sexuality. The British Science Festival has been no exception; we’ve seen, heard and participated in frank, healthy discussion and debate around the current situation and how to go about changing it. There are 100 or so named speakers in this year’s programme, and 40% of them are female. Of the seven Award Lectures given this year, five of them were by female speakers. That’s a glowingly healthy over-representation of the asymmetric gender profile of UK universities. A similar pattern can be found for ethnicity.

The first evening of the Festival saw a well-attended talk by Professor Hilary Lappin-Scott (@lappinscott), Pro-Vice Chancellor at Swansea University, and inspirational female lead. She told the audience what drove her away from looking down microscopes, to start talking to people and listening to what they had to say. Professor Lappin-Scott acknowledged the large part that social media has played in her experience. She clearly outlines a problem; the results of a statistical analysis published by the European Commission, She Figures, show an overwhelming inequality in the numbers of women and men employed at UK higher education institutions. There has been a tiny, yet insignificant improvement in these figures in the period 2007 to 2013, yet the proportion of professors at UK universities that are female is still a shocking 24%. Looking at ethnic diversity the story gets even worse.

Hilary Lappin-Scott speaking at the 2017 British Science Festival

Professor Lappin-Scott reflects on how evident this has been during her own career: “there were lots of women during my PhD, but I kept looking around and finding that the women around me had gone.” Women don’t tend to be offered the prestigious roles, and she is still the only woman on the senior management team at Swansea University.

Research scientists are expected to relocate in order to succeed at work, often moving country or continent to get a better job. For women, this problem is amplified by career breaks and caring responsibilities. If you’re a woman it’s not sufficient to just be a good scientist, you have to be an amazing scientist, and sit on senior management committees to boot. And with the world crashing down around your ears, it’s difficult to get through this without feeling the social responsibility to offer support and mentorship to those on their way up, practice outreach in schools, or generally go that extra mile.

Her solution is to facilitate a change in culture so that we increase the visibility of females working in higher education. 60% of staff at UK universities are female, but they are not in roles that are made visible. We need to make those roles visible. Only then will we make everyone feel welcome and start to use their talents properly.

Toward this end, the Sallis Benney Theatre in Brighton city centre has been exhibiting a set of stunning portraits, Raising Horizons, on loan from Burlington House. The portraits are photographs of 14 eminent female scientists, portrayed to recreate representations of 14 women who were not recognised during the scientific establishment during their lifetimes. The “TrowelBlazer” artworks highlighting women in geology, geoscience and anthropology were a response to the excess of artworks depicting white middle-aged males adorning the walls of the UK’s scientific institutions.

Professor Lappin-Scott shared some of the initiatives she’s seen implemented in Swansea University. Visibility of excellent researchers has been increased through giving public lectures such as TED talks. A recently organised Wikipedia Edit-athon increased the number of eminent female scientists with pages on the online encyclopaedia, in order to improve the visibility of the work done by women.

Later in the week, Professor Debra Humphris (@debrahumphris), Vice Chancellor at the University of Brighton, spoke about how the Festival has really focussed on the amazing achievements of women in science. She expressed hope that this will encourage girls to see what they can do and not what they can’t do. Professor Uta Frith (@utafrith), President of the BSA, talked further about how important it is to have so many excellent female role models in the limelight over the course of the Festival.

So it’s not all bad, and there are evidently some pockets of really great practice out there. But there is still a lot of work to do. We also have to keep in mind that gender imbalance is not all one-sided. Many areas lack male representation, and many disadvantaged children are severely lacking positive male role models. However, there is progress being made on this front too, for example the University of Coventry, together with National Express have launched a scheme to support men moving into allied health professional careers such as nursing and dietetics.

Ethnic minorities are still hugely underrepresented in academia and science and the field needs to continually work at inclusivity of non-binary and LGBTQ+ groups as well as people with caring responsibilities, disabilities and mental illness. It is the responsibility of every scientist in the world today to keep striving for an environment where you can “bring your whole self to work”.

I was captivated by the way the Festival approached what is often a hidden or not spoken about problem. The BSA’s well thought-out attitude encouraged people to engage with healthy discussion and debate at all levels.