XMaS inspiring women into scientific careers

The University of Warwick, the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility and the Institute Laue-Langevin looks at tackling issues in diversity by introducing high school students to international facilities

The issue of diversity within Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) subjects, especially those within material science, is well known and has recently been highlighted within the academic sector by the National Science Foundation [1] in the USA and the latest Higher Education Statistics Agency diversity data published by the UK funding councils, RCUK [2]. This set of data shows consistent under-representation of females; women are under-represented in all STEM disciplines (typically 10–20%). Whilst these data relate to academic careers and engagement, the picture is replicated within industry, although the data is harder to obtain and quantify. The number of females in STEM careers is a long standing issue and there have been numerous efforts to address it at both national and international levels; with the most emphasis being placed on inspiring young girls to choose science subjects at school. A recent House of Commons report by the Science and Technology Committee on ‘Women in scientific careers’ [3] reports on gender perceptions and biases being present throughout all stages of STEM study and career. The report quotes from both academic and business sectors that ‘recognized factors influencing gender bias include:

(a) stereotypes, for example, ‘70% of people around the world associate being a scientist with being a man’;

(b) a popular misconception amongst students and parents is that particular STEM careers, particularly those in the physical sciences, are masculine;

(c) a lack of inspirational, or even approachable, female role models with available knowledge about STEM careers.’

The report comments that the uptake of STEM is impacted by a lack of focus on supporting and highlighting career choices for women within STEM as well as tackling the wider gender bias issues within society, arising from peer groups, families and the general media. The historical absence of women highlighted in research, or in the media, reinforces the perception that STEM is a career choice for men. Such attitudes fuel stereotypes and popular misconceptions, undermining the wider STEM uptake effort. Thus, the lack of inspirational, or approachable, female role models in successful careers is a critical issue that needs to be addressed to further the uptake of women into science.

To tackle some of these issues, the EPSRC [4] funded XMaS [5] mid-range facility, in partnership with the Department of Physics, University of Warwick [6] as well as the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility [7] (ESRF) and the Institute Laue-Langevin [8] (ILL) ran a project taking 14 female Physics students, aged 16–17 years, to Grenoble, France in April 2015 [9].

The students were selected through a competition [10] with an age group identified as being the most receptive to a program supporting STEM careers. The students visited the EPN Campus in Grenoble to introduce them to the possibilities of science careers in these world class leading research facilities, as well as introducing them to the inspirational scientists working there. The quotes below are taken directly from students who attended the trip.

As a result of the trip, the student's perceptions and stereotypes of people working in STEM careers were changed. They saw the collaborative nature of working in the sciences first hand, in contrast to the perception many of the students held, of life as a scientist being an isolated experience. The opportunity also provided an inspirational setting to see science ‘beyond the classroom’, but with direct relevance to the school curriculum and the ‘real world’.

Students where given the opportunity to talk to scientists and discuss in formal and informal settings; with researchers providing honest answers about their experiences and life choices, helping the students gain confidence in their own abilities.

Beyond changing the perceptions of the students attending the trip, the project impacted on a far wider group than the 14 students who attended. A highlight of the project was a public evening where the students produced and presented videos and presentations on ‘what scientists do’ at the University of Warwick [11]. It was clear that not only had their perceptions been changed about careers for women in science, but the activity had also enhanced the enthusiasm and engagement of parents, peers and teachers.

The trip provided the students with new insights into possible careers drawing on STEM subjects and the links between different STEM areas, with the participants agreeing that they were more likely to choose to study STEM related subjects in the future as a direct result of the interactions with the people they met.

The project aims to continue supporting these students and their schools by keeping in contact and inviting students to further outreach activities.

We would like to take this opportunity to thank the ESRF and ILL as well as all the staff involved in making the XMaS Scientist Experience such a success.

Further reading

1. http://nsf.gov/statistics/2015/nsf15311/digest/

2. http://www.rcuk.ac.uk/media/news/240315/

3. http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201314/cmselect/cmsctech/701/70102.htm

4. http://www.epsrc.ac.uk

5. http://www.xmas.ac.uk

6. http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/fac/sci/physics

7. http://www.esrf.eu

8. http://www.ill.eu

9. For more information, please contact Kayleigh Lampard, consult the beamline web page http://www.xmas.ac.uk or the twitter feed @XMaSSchoolTrip.

10. The students were asked to prepare a report answering the question ‘What is the legacy of Dorothy Hodgkin, both on the study of structure on an atomic scale and for women in Science?’ This question was chosen to specifically encourage students to reflect on the impact of women in science and the achievements of an inspirational researcher and role model.

11. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tpJrnE162Qc&feature=youtu.be

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DOI: 10.1016/j.mattod.2015.07.003