UCL academics: Why the International Day of Women & Girls in Science is so important

Women in stem montage
Women in stem montage

Over the past two years, women have led ground-breaking research into public health, vaccines and innovative technology, alongside working on the front lines of Covid-19 response as scientists, health care workers and more.

Yet according to UNESCO’s forthcoming Science Report only 33 per cent of researchers are currently women. And due to the pandemic, the gender gap in science and technology is poised to widen.

Implemented by UNESCO and the United Nations, the International Day of Women and Girls in Science (11th February), recognises the critical role women and girls play in science and technology, and aims to promote full and equal access and participation for women and girls in science.

Here, some of UCL’s female academics explain why having equality in the field is so important.

Professor Jennifer Rohn (UCL Medicine) led the Athena Swan committee, dedicated to Equality and Diversity issues, in UCL’s Division of Medicine for six years and has a particular interest in why women and girls are less likely to enter the field, and why they are much less likely to persist in the career if they do.

She said: "Equality in the scientific profession will only be addressed when four things happen. First, all barriers need to be eliminated, including conscious and unconscious bias.

"Second, people need to be given decent support in maternity, childcare and other caregiving activities that cut into valuable research time.

"Third, academic science needs to evaluate recruitment and promotion candidates using a measure that takes into account a broader picture of what success looks like.

"Finally, sufficient role models must be on hand to inspire and coach the next generation. Like many acts of social change, improving the local environment is just as important as sweeping changes to the entire landscape."

Meanwhile, lecturer, Oksana Pyzik (UCL School of Pharmacy) has addressed UN Member States on the UN’s International Day of Women & Girls in Science Forum in both 2018 and 2020 at the UN General Assembly Hall.

She said: "We cannot afford to lose out on female talent in leadership and innovation particularly around pandemic prevention and response. Women account for 70% of the health and social care workforce and deliver care to around 5 billion people. Healthcare is delivered by women but led by men.

"Men occupy 80% of board seats in global health institutions and 69% of head global health organizations. Gender pay-gaps across all health specialties persist that are not wholly explained by seniority, career, breaks, and part-time work. The entire health system will benefit if women who deliver healthcare have an equal say in the design of national health plans and policies."

Senior Project Manager, Chris Brockley-Blatt (UCL Mullard Space Science Laboratory) who led on the building on James Webb’s NIRSpec Calibration Source, not only has over 20 years’ experience of leading project teams in building space instruments for scientific missions but is also a working mum.

She said: "It’s important that women take on these roles to bring different prospects and experiences to the table."

And Dr Helen Czerski (UCL Mechanical Engineering) believes that having more women and girls in science could help both reach equality and save the planet.

She said: "Planet Earth is an island in space, a rare, beautiful and intricate engine that has life deeply embedded in its systems.  

"As we learn to be better stewards of our precious home,  we need all the help that we can get in building a better future, and that means doing our best together.  It’s not just morally right that everyone should be represented in this effort - it’s essential to include all those perspectives if we want the best outcome for everyone."

Professor Lucie Green (UCL Mullard Space Science Laboratory) who is Chief Stargazer at the Society of Popular Astronomy, said: "I am inspired by creating a positive impact in the world around you and sharing the knowledge generated at UCL for the common good. This quote from Ruth Bader Ginsburg ’Fight for the things that you care about. But do it in a way that will lead others to join you’ is hugely motivational for me."

UCL’s Envoy for Gender Equality, Professor Sara Mole (UCL GOS Institute of Child Health), said: "UCL was a founding member of the Athena Swan charter and has used this to challenge and support its work and progress towards gender equality.  We remain committed to driving forwards, and to developing and embedding best practice in gender equality in all our work."

Space historian and science writer, Osnat Katz (UCL Science & technology Studies), said: "You don’t need to be directly involved in science to be making a difference in science - I’ve got a science background and this is just some of all the cool stuff you can do".

Affelia Wibisono (UCL Space & Climate Physics) is a PhD candidate in Planetary Science. She said: " "Science and society gain many benefits from women working in science and engineering related roles. Numerous studies have shown that considering gender improves the accuracy of scientific research and that women can also bring unique and fresh points of view to research. It’s important to break down stereotypes around who or what a scientist is so that young people can have the confidence that they could also work in science. If people can see what they can be, then they can go and be it."  

Meanwhile, Professor Ruth Morgan (UCL Security & Crime Science), who is one of the World Economic Forum’s Young Scientists and was the Specialist Adviser to the House of Lords Science and Technology Select Committee for their inquiry into Forensic Science, said: "The pandemic has shown us how important it is to work together across disciplines and international borders, and to bring together diverse insights to make breakthroughs and find solutions.  To change the world for the better we need to invest in making careers in science more accessible so that the science community of the future can bring a full range of perspectives and insights to the challenges we will face."