By Natalie Masento

Attending the British Science Festival in Coventry and Warwickshire last week, I was looking forward to the inspiring speakers at the Festival discussing many far-reaching topics. Two events that particularly caught my interest were Women, Science and Feminism, a talk by contemporary historian Dr Sally Horrocks from the University of Leicester and a discussion with Angela Saini, related to her recent book on racism and sexism in science, A Journey from Inferior to Superior. Both talks reflected on the past, present and future of women in science.

Getting more girls to study and engage with science is a continued campaign for the education sector and science community. As a woman in science I’m thankful that I was always encouraged to explore my passions and curiosities that lead to my career in science. There was never any doubt in my mind that I couldn’t pursue this career because I am a woman.

To me, labels such as 'Women in Science, 'Women in STEM' or 'STEMinists' have been important in unifying people. They have developed a greater sense of community and motivation for actionable change and programmes to support future generations of girls in science.

In her talk, Dr Sally Horrocks recounted the stories of earlier generations of female graduates of science, who had careers between 1940s-1970s. She highlighted that although these women were encouraged to pursue studies and careers in science, they had restricted agency when it came to making choices and having options, having to "take what was on offer and get on with it", "not wanting to rock the boat." There was a common expectation that pursuing a full-time career after having children was not an option as women were considered the default primary care givers. Women who did take up science-related roles were also very clear that although they were succeeding in a 'man’s world' they did not identify as feminists and did not attribute any impact or change they had with this movement. Dr Horrocks shared quotes from these women, who described feminists as "whining women, who made a lot of noise but didn’t get much done."

From a modern perspective, I found it intriguing that female pioneers pursuing careers in science, despite limited expectations and choices, felt unable to identify with the cause of feminism, a movement that looked to support equal opportunities for people like themselves.

An event later that day included a discussion of where some of the expectations of women in science stemmed from and how this applies to present day. In A Journey from Inferior to Superior, author Angela Saini was joined by Floriane Fidegnon-Edoh, an engineer at Warwick University and science communicator promoting diversity and inclusion in STEM.

Angela has published two books examining the myth that science is objective, emphasising the inherent sexism and racism that exists within science. In her first book Inferior, Angela exposes how scientists drove the belief that women were inferior to men. This led to widespread expectations that female biology held women back from achieving the same accomplishments as men. Angela summarised her frustration, saying: "according to science women can’t do the stuff that men can do and apparently it’s their fault!" In her most recent book, Superior, she explores how racial stereotypes resulted in the segregation of people. One example outlined in the book is medical treatments for hypertension, profiled on race and skin colour, despite statistical evidence that refutes the effectiveness of different hypertension treatments for those from different racial backgrounds.

Angela shared her frustration with science always taking a divisive approach, saying: "why does science drag its feet, why are we obsessed with differences?…We need to find commonality and reduce minority."

Following her talk, both Angela and Florian discussed how societal expectations can play a large role in influencing both young people and women in science. Florian spoke of how "social constructs are holding us back," as well as how the belief that women did not have a place in science was unnecessary, calling for more diverse perspectives in science, and a more inclusive culture.

Reflecting on the talks from Dr Sally Horrocks and Angela Saini, I felt like I gained an understanding of how women in past generations faced conflict in pursuing careers in science, while grappling with society's expectation for them to be wives and care-givers. I came away understanding those women felt they could not create widespread change for fear they would jeopardise their own positions in science. Angela Saini’s discussion revealed to me the route of many expectations placed on women and why there is inherent bias and misunderstanding when it comes to acknowledging a women’s ability and opportunity.

So, what can we do? Angela stressed that an important first step is to recognise that bias exists in our society, and that "we must all be aware of it." With this awareness, we must then work to ensure we don’t allow it to segregate and harm others. In her closing words, "We need to appreciate that we are all different but we are all human too."