Life Sciences And Diversity: Gender Is The Tip Of The Iceberg

The autumn has arrived and with it the return of the academic year. We hope that this one will be a return to something like normality following the huge disruptions to learning caused by the pandemic. 

Covid-19 has also kept businesses out of schools too, with most organisations all but stopping their outreach work. 

Many scientists credit their choice of career to being inspired during education. Whether that was through experiments in the school laboratory or by engaging with individuals and organisations from the sector through STEM initiatives. 

This is especially true for many women, who remain chronically underrepresented in science-based businesses, especially in leadership roles.  

There is an adage that I’ve mentioned before: ‘if you can’t see it, you can’t be it.’ The more examples of female success in the world of science, the more girls will be inspired. 

Fortunately, the past year has been a vintage one for women in science. 

We saw the Nobel Prize for Chemistry shared between two women for the first time last November. And of course, Professor Sarah Gilbert led the team at Oxford University that helped discover one of the world’s first vaccines for COVID-19.

Professor Gilbert and four other prominent women working in STEM careers from around the world were even immortalised as Barbie dolls. While a bit of a gimmick in truth, they are at least a tangible example young girls can see and make a welcome change from the toy’s usual feminine tropes.  

The same logic applies to areas like racial diversity where, again, science lags the wider economy by some margin. In fact, racial representation is behind gender in many scientific careers. 

Though science’s diversity challenge runs deeper still and in ways that stretch beyond what’s visible on the surface. 

Consider neuro diversity and social class where both the challenges facing children and the backgrounds of potentially inspiring scientists can be hidden from view. 

Science is an industry heavily influenced by academia but this risks closing off career paths for children and young people that might struggle to progress within our largely one-size-fits all education system.

This applies to those with neuro-diverse backgrounds such as those with an autism spectrum disorder. Or the many that end up leaving school without qualification – so-called ‘NEETS’ – which studies have found often learn better from interacting and doing rather than sitting and listening, the approach taken for most of our curriculum.  For a pursuit so enriched by real world experiments, science should be well-suited to them. 

In the case of social class, science is a sector woefully underrepresented by those from lower income backgrounds.

I can speak from personal experience here. At university, I often felt more of an outsider for being one of the few people from a lower income family and not privately educated on my Pharmacology and Physiology course than because I was one of the handful of women. 

We need more than just visible role models, we need deeper engagement and encouragement for children and young people from diverse backgrounds. 

They may find people in the industry that look like them or that identify as the same gender, but who don’t act or talk like them. 

Initiatives like allyships are a part of the solution. While not an easily defined concept, at their heart is a life-long commitment of those becoming allies – who do not need to be from a marginalised group – to understand the struggles of those that are. And then use their voice to champion issues and tackle conscious or unconscious prejudice, bias and barriers. 

Sadly, Covid has exacerbated problems for children from low-income homes. Many were disadvantaged by a lack of access to technology and resources during home learning, as much as missing out on time in labs and business STEM outreach programmes. The attainment gap between children on free school meals and their peers has widened further. 

The UK government wants to use the high value jobs life sciences creates as a tool for rebalancing regional economies within its Levelling Up agenda. But to do so, these jobs need to be available to and viable for all. 

Getting engagement with schools back up and running this academic year is welcome but it is only just the start.

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