February 11 is International Day of Women and Girls in Science. Surely, you cry, we are over 40 years on from the 1975 Sex Discrimination Act, and there is no need for this in 2019? Here are nine reasons why it doesn’t just still matter, but actually matters more than ever.
- Only one quarter of graduates in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects are women – Women graduates are still a minority in STEM subjects even though 56% of undergraduates are now women. In computer science and engineering, the proportion of women falls to an astonishingly low 15% and 14%, although it is slightly higher for physical sciences at around 40%. The figures for minority ethnic women are, depressingly, even smaller. There is a long way to go towards gender equality.
- Lack of diversity leads to poorer quality thinking – Research has shown that more diverse groups work better, and achieve better outcomes. A more diverse Twitter network leads to improved idea generation. By contrast, groups that are very similar tend to think in very similar ways, and are therefore less creative. We need creativity in science like never before—and it is therefore vital to encourage more diverse research groups and organisations by encouraging more women and people from minority groups to study science.
- We need more scientists, not fewer – Science is essential for solving some of the world’s biggest issues: global warming, how to feed a growing population, major killers like cancer, for example. It is also essential in achieving the UN’s Development Goals. We need more scientists in the world—so how can it be right that so much of the potential workforce feels that science is not for them?
- Gender equality may be particularly important in designing high-quality gender-relevant research – Nobody can argue that there are physical differences between men and women. These go deeper than mere appearance too, into human biochemistry such as hormonal responses. Having both male and female scientists is crucial to designing and delivering research programmes that are equally applicable to men and women—and that does not necessarily mean identical for both sexes.
- STEM subjects are becoming more important right across the board – With the expansion of data, and the availability of high-quality but accessible advanced analytics packages, more and more organisations are applying a more evidence-based and rigorous approach to decision-making. An understanding of data, ability to evaluate evidence, and a logical approach are increasingly valued as skills in all sectors—and these only come from studying science.
- A scientific approach also has benefits for society – Science encourages a rigorous, logical approach to thinking. A scientific background gives more confidence in applying a methodical approach to work, and in evaluating information by looking at the evidence. In a world where fake news is already commonplace, we need more people who take this attitude, rather than accepting everything at face value.
- The numbers of women in science are increasing—but there are still very few in leadership positions – The number of women is (gradually) increasing in science. The US in particular has shown some significant growth in the last few years. However, this increase is not necessarily matched by an increase in the number of women in leadership positions—a similar situation seen in the number of women directors on boards of companies.
- Organisational culture seems to be key to attracting women to careers in science – There is nothing about either women or science that makes it inevitable that more men should pursue careers in science. Increases in the number of women working in particular sectors and organisations suggest, instead, that organisational culture is key to attracting women. Increased flexibility in job design and recognition that women may want to take time off to start a family, are crucial.
- Private sector organisations are leading the way – Government and academic centres have generally been slower to recognise that flexibility is crucial in attracting women. Private sector organisations, including pharma companies, however, have reaped the benefits that come from a more diverse workforce, and wider talent pool. State institutions around the world need to catch up fast.
The bottom line is that there are still barriers to female participation in science – Fundamentally, neither science nor society can afford that. Empowering women is vital to successful and sustainable development around the world. International Day of Women and Girls in Science matters more than ever.