Role Models for Girls?

Recently I received an email from a young girl (aged 8 and a half, as she signed herself off, with overtones of Adrian Mole) complaining about the lack of representation of women in STEM. As she says ‘If you want to be in science you need to see yourself represented.’ – a view heard often, but it is interesting that a pre-teen has already worked this out and sees it as a problem. It is always a pleasure to receive a note of thanks for the work I do and have done around the whole question of women in STEM, and particularly so when it becomes apparent it is reaching readers of essentially all ages.

For someone of that age, there are increasing numbers of books describing women from the past who made significant contributions in science aimed at young children. Very often these are about Marie Curie and, as I discuss at some length in my book, I am not sure she is the best role model since her life was so extreme. Is it likely to be attractive to a young girl to hear of someone who was consigned to a cold outhouse for her research, simply because she was a woman? The trouble is, most women from the past who ‘made’ it had so many challenges to overcome that I wonder if any of them make good role models. There are those who weren’t able to get to university till they were relatively mature because their fathers forbade it; those who never got past being an assistant or unpaid because, well that’s just how it was for women in their day. Even for Nobel Prize winners like Barbara McClintock, who did her main research for love not (any) money.

These really aren’t the images I’d like an eight-year-old to take away about how science is done. Rosalind Franklin – another woman whose life story can readily be found in children’s books – had a rubbish time with her colleagues and died tragically young. Also a bit of a downer of a life story. For Jocelyn Bell Burnell, people seemed to think her engagement was worth more of a celebration than her discovery of pulsars. That discovery was anyhow not rewarded with a Nobel Prize for her personally: it went to her supervisor Anthony Hewish and his colleague Martin Ryle. When Dorothy Hodgkin did win the Nobel Prize (still the only British woman to do so), in 1964, the Daily Mail celebrated this triumph with the headline “Oxford housewife wins Nobel“. Again, not a very positive message to give a young girl.

It is not irrelevant that, as late as 2018, laser scientist and Nobel Prize winner Donna Strickland remarked that she wanted the story to be about her science not her sex. Surely in the 21st century we have reached a point where it ought to be possible for the science to come first, rather than ‘oh look, here’s a woman who is quite successful’. Yet we still do not seem to have got there. Young girls may not be inspired by the typical emphasis on gender, not success, for women in the world of science.

As we look to a possible change of Government, it would be nice to think that we might see some better (female) role models appearing in the national curriculum, coupled with a national curriculum that actually needs to be followed by all state schools; currently academies can opt out. The former was a recommendation that Greg Clark’s Commons enquiry into Diversity in STEM made, but to no effect (at least as yet). It would be interesting to draw up a list of potential role models to include. Using Nobel Prize winners might be one option, a clear label of ‘success’ that would distinguish the Donna Strickland’s of this world in a way an eight (or indeed eighteen) year old could understand.

On the other hand, the fundamental flaw in the way these awards are made, so that team science is not rewarded, just that illustrious but generally illusory lone genius, does not reflect the primary way of doing science in the 21st century. Recognizing that collaboration is an important part of progress in science, that it’s OK to enjoy interactions and often that’s not only the best but the only way of making progress, is a fact that the Nobel’s continue to ignore by their way of doing things. Given that the Peace Prize is often given to groups (think of the IPCC in 2077), it’s not immediately obvious that the terms of Alfred Nobel’s will actually forbid awarding one of the science prizes to a group, although that is the argument typically advanced. I believe that the ongoing failure to recognize the importance of collaboration in science by the Nobel committee is detrimental to science itself. We know in our universities, promotion is often likewise based simply on an individual’s contribution rather than the part they play in collaborative science, and this too is a major problem. Although everyone is happy to believe that excellence in science should be rewarded, why should team science not be ‘excellent’ (of course it is!) and hence get the accolades?

To return to the eight-year-old girl I mentioned at the start, as she grows up what will attract or deter her from following her current dreams? Our schools should think much harder about this, as should the committees that make decisions about promotions and prizes for later years. Only when this happens will she be able to see ‘people like her’ represented across the board, encouraging her that she does belong in whichever field she chooses.

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One Response to Role Models for Girls?

  1. Alessandro Siani says:

    Very insightful post! I recently published a study on this exact point (lack of STEM role models in our school curricula and teaching resources), and the results were quite appalling.
    Here’s a link to the free full text in case you’re interested.
    Best wishes

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