By Katherine Mathieson, Chief Executive of the British Science Association and Gisela Abbam, Chair of the British Science Association

Today is International Women’s Day (IWD). As always, this day provides an opportunity to reflect on – and celebrate – the achievements of women throughout history and explore how much more there is to be done for women to achieve equality across the globe.

This important awareness day also falls on the first day of our own national awareness campaign: British Science Week, now in its 25th year.

Since the advent of British Science Week two and a half decades ago, the agenda of getting more women into STEM has picked up credence. Yet, in the main, progress has been slow.

British Science Week is now in its 25th year

In 2018, WISE reported that 25% of people working in STEM industries are now female: a number which is slowly creeping up year on year, but still falls short of where we want to be.

The UK has the lowest percentage of female engineering professionals in Europe, at less than 10%. Six out of seven of the Research Councils have never had a female CEO. 

And while successes should be lauded, it goes without saying that there's more work to be done. For many, gender is the first obstacle to overcome, which is then layered on top of another characteristic that makes challenging power structures even more difficult. With some facets of society facing two or three levels of discrimination, true gender equality can only be achieved with an inclusive and intersectional approach.

This year's IWD theme - Balance for Better - is particularly close to our hearts at the British Science Association as it conveys a broader message of equality.

The official IWD website says: “we are entering an exciting period of history where the world expects balance. We notice its absence and celebrate its presence.”

This year's IWD theme is 'Balance for Better'

This sentiment couldn't ring truer for us. If we want to achieve balance, we need to look beyond gender, and we need to champion balance for everyone.  At the British Science Association (BSA) we are concerned about not only the absence of women, but also the absence of other under-represented groups.

The findings of the Fawcett Society's 2018 Sex and Power Index showed that women are significantly under-represented in positions of power. Women with disabilities or from a Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) background are virtually unrepresented. Of the six women in the top FTSE 100 organisations, none are from a BAME background.  These discrepancies extend to politics too: there are currently no BAME women in Cabinet and two women in the House of Commons identify as disabled.

Socioeconomic status cannot be understated either: women are substantially more likely to work in part-time, unskilled and lower paid work than their male counterparts. With little training offered, it’s hard to progress beyond these roles and into senior positions.

Identity is important too. Sociology lecturer Kristin Aune and Catherine Redfern found the single most important factor in people calling themselves feminists was higher education: a space where working-class women are typically under-represented.

We all benefit from more diversity

More diverse voices, opinions and skills will benefit us all.  We know that in business, McKinsey research finds that companies in the top quartile for gender or racial and ethnic diversity are more likely to have financial returns above their national industry medians. When looking at solutions to diversity and inclusion, what works for women works for everyone.  For instance, employers offering flexible working, childcare, support via mentoring and so on.

In culture and the creative industries, there has long been an important drive for diversity to better reflect the make-up of society. Without diverse voices commissioning, writing or producing work, we can’t expect it to be representative. In addition, without diversity, we lose out on the richness of work drawn from experiences different from our own.

There's been a long been a drive for diversity in the culture and creative industries

Science and innovation, too, needs to be more sensitive to different populations. This will naturally be easier with a more diverse pool of people working on new discoveries and designs. It will also help ensure that in the future we are not still designing crash test dummies on ‘the average male’, not lacking Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) in women’s sizes, or excluding women from clinical trials

This is why the BSA is seeking to transform the diversity and inclusivity of science; to reach under-served audiences; and increase the number of people who are actively engaged and involved in science. Currently, only a quarter of the population are actively involved (as professionals) or engaged in science, and this group is not representative of society as a whole.  We know that the people who are least likely to say they are interested in engaging with science are more likely to be from lower socioeconomic status groups, BAME, or women.

Championing diverse role models

British Science Week is a fantastic opportunity to challenge stereotypes about scientists – who they are, what they look like, and what they do – and to encourage cross-disciplinary and cross-curricular work. Thousands of primary schools, libraries, museums and community centres across the UK invite scientists and science communicators in to give talks, deliver workshops and engage those who might not usually participate in science activities. 

With the first day of British Science Week coinciding with International Women's Day, this year is no exception in that there are many dedicated to celebrating the contribution women have made to STEM and countless others aimed at encouraging girls into the sector; from Bottle Cap Theatre’s new musical, The Limit, which celebrates the extraordinary achievements of mathematician Sophie Germain, to a Roller Derby event in High Wycombe where the skaters are all women in STEM.

British Science Week provides an opportunity to challenge stereotypes around science and scientists 

The BSA would like all event organisers to think about inviting speakers from a range of backgrounds and – through our own social and digital channels – we seek to highlight creative, engaging and entertaining events that don’t conform to the “lab coat and safety goggles” stereotype. 

Let’s use the power of our annual awareness campaign to showcase diverse role models, to subvert the stereotype, and show that science events and activities can be for everyone.