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International Day of Women and Girls in Science

Written by Lydia Darby, Social Media Manager & Volunteer at the ACAA

“It’s not about who you are now, but the kind of person you want to be.”

February 11th marks the International Day of Women and Girls in Science. Despite increased recognition and efforts to engage women and girls, they remain underrepresented and excluded from full participation. According to the UNESCO data from 2014 – 2016, only 30% of female students choose to study STEM subjects at University. Gender biases prevail, leading to just 8% of female students globally enrolling in engineering and 5% in science.

We interviewed 21-year-old Fatemeh from Essex who is currently studying a BSc in Aerospace engineering, Astronautics & Space Technology at Kingston University. She is a determined and inspiring young woman who is driven to achieve her goal of working as an astronaut for NASA. After studying her first year in Wales, she switched to study a more challenging course at the London University. I was also fortunate enough to speak to ‘PhD survivor’ Jo, now a scientist at Venator Corp – a leading global chemical company dedicated to the development and manufacture of titanium dioxide pigments and performance additives. Jo enjoyed chemistry at school and decided to study it at University. Lesley Yellowlees, the first female president of the Royal Society of Chemistry, is her role model and definition of a super woman. Jo felt like she didn’t face many barriers to studying, although she has felt like the industry is biased against those who can’t move location due to family ties.

Fatemeh, on the other hand, has faced stigma from her family and course mates. Her father is a mechanical engineer and since she was little, she always wanted to be the person that designed and built things. Without the necessary advice and support, Fatemeh didn’t know which route to take. She tried out computer science and physics before taking up a BTEC in engineering at college. When Fatemeh found out about aerospace engineering she realised it was perfect for her, “it sounds like it’s just about rockets and aircraft” she says, “but that’s the top of engineering and once I knew about those, I’d know about cars and other vehicles too.” Fatemeh wants to do her Masters degree in Japan, Russian or China, and her dream job is to work as an astronaut for NASA or on the rockets and satellites at the European Space Association.

The main challenges to studying engineering at University came predominantly from her relatives who told her to study something more feminine such as medicine, or even beauty and make-up. Her family persistently tried to dissuade her, claiming that she would get harassed and bullied for not acting “as a female should”. Fatemeh’s family suggested that because she was Muslim, she shouldn’t be studying in such a male-dominated subject. As the only woman on her course in Wales, and only one of a handful at Kingston, Fatemeh has faced abuse from her course mates and has received sexist comments. Disappointingly, her lecturers failed to condemn her classmate’s behaviour or act to prevent it. Brave and determined, Fatemeh has never let the gender bias put her off.

Encouraging Participation

We spoke of what the science and engineering industry could be doing to encourage women and girls to engage with these subjects. Fatemeh suggests the industry should be advertising and encouraging females, especially in primary and secondary schools. This must start from early ages, as careers advice during college may already be too late to encourage women to choose STEM subjects. The WISE Campaign (@theWISEcampaign) are working with 200 organisations to promote gender parity in STEM, promoting these subjects in schools and supporting female employees. They have also developed an online game, My Skills My Life, for girls between 11-19, which was developed to address the stereotype that science, engineering and technology are more suited to boys than girls. The game helps girls to identify their personality types, shows them the types of roles in STEM that they could do, and matches them to role models who share their personality type to learn more about STEM careers. Jo is also a trustee at the Women’s Engineering Society (@WES1919) and is working hard to inspire women to achieve their potential as engineers, scientists and leaders. Do you have advice for Fatemeh and other young women like her? Tweet us at @A_CAA!

Fatemeh leaves me with the message, “studying science and engineering isn’t about your gender or how you look. It’s not about who you are now, but the kind of person you want to be… as long as you have purpose and a goal in your life.”

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