Women and sexism in STEM

Last week I tried to explain to someone whom I saw adding to abuse directed at a woman on Twitter why that’s a very bad thing for a STEM Ambassador to be doing – once I noticed that they shared that voluntary occupation in their bio.



STEM is now a popular acronym that describes “Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths” – the sciences and their applied disciplines, essentially. Some like to add another M for Medicine but I think that’s covered by Science and Technology, really. Separate debate.

What is not worth debating is whether women are disadvantaged, underrepresented, discriminated against and put off in these fields. It has been shown time and again, and I’ve placed links and references in this piece to demonstrate that. People with the ability to pay attention, women or otherwise, already know this. I intend this to be a resource to demonstrate this fact, and a push for people to try to tackle it however they see fit.

STEM Ambassadors are trained by a group called STEMNET and their purpose is to inspire young people, encourage them to learn about the scientific disciplines and perhaps aim for a career in one of the fields. I believe that if we’re to tackle gender inequality and discrimination in STEM, teaching children that everyone can do and work in science is vital.

Personal touch

Inspecting snails as a child of 6/
horsing around in the lab as a child of 24

People ask me why I “left science” – I don’t consider that I have, I work at the same place I ventured to 7 years ago to begin my PhD (in cancer research) and I am now helping to spread the word about our work – my job includes supporting our students, new recruits and established staff, many of which are women.

Many of whom are friends.

I just didn’t feel like lab-based research was for me, for various reasons. I enjoy what I do and I’m lucky to have had the opportunities and support to get there.


I grew up around a lot of sexist older men and I could not possibly fully describe how galling it is to watch people you otherwise love and respect (family, friends etc.) speak of other women (and by extension, you) in a dismissive, insulting and belittling manner.

The world already shows us what it thinks of us – we’re underrepresented and discouraged in the entertainment industries: games, film+TV, literature; our bodies are used to sell products; we’re taught they are public property, and people treat them as such.

How many times do strangers comment on men’s appearances in the street or aggressively instruct them to perform something sexual? Would you not find it shocking and inappropriate? Just one example.

These many things and much more is why I have long called myself a feminist, yet people still ask if I do, and yes the question both surprises and bores me.

We are told that the proper, respectable, worthwhile jobs are for men – less than we were in the past, for sure, but it’s still out there with the boys’ toys and the girls’ toys; the blue and pink, the choice of fireman/ spaceman/ policeman/ doctor, or the housewife-cleaner/ nurse/ princess (that’s not even a job!!).

I do not believe that women are less capable in male-dominated or stereotypically ‘technical’ fields – curiosity is all you really need to get started in science, and most if not all children have that.

The “leaky pipeline”

To the point… women in STEM. Less than 20% of grant applicants are women [1] and fewer grants are awarded to them [2]. Only 20% of UK professors are women [3]. Why? No, it’s not just because of babies and wiring.

Women are certainly discouraged from STEM [4] (very few girls take A level physics for example), and the few of us who get there regardless are still tested regularly [5,6,7]. Not everyone withstands these tests, and women continually ‘leak’ out of STEM fields [8,9].

Academia is still a sexist environment to work in, and it’s a battle for us. Women are not hired equally and paid less when they are [10,11] – even by other women – sexism is in the air we breathe from day 1 and none of us are immune to that, it can just be easier to acknowledge and try to move on from when it’s happening directly to you.

Edit: here’s a depressing piece on sexual assault in science. And on the professional level, see 2015’s #AddMaleAuthorGate, exposing sexism in peer review.

A House of Commons report states that the causes of women’s underrepresentation are of 3 broad types:

  1. issues particular to academia
  2. issues particular to STEM, and
  3. the gendered nature of work and family care in the UK. [12]

For example, senior members of staff might criticise women who have to take time off for family. In fact, it’s not “what women do!”, as I heard someone put it, it’s what people who want children have to do and unfortunately we’re required to do the physically draining bit – men who want children often can’t seem to grasp this and consider that perhaps pushing for equal parental leave would make things better for everyone.

Still, women worry that their job will be gone when they want to return to work and have to deal with these judgments about their ambitions and capability at work; on top of the usual being ignored, harassed and other common experiences.

I heard of one occasion when office allocations were decided in a pub on a Friday night, when people had to go to pick up children, so some find out on Monday they’ve missed that boat and ended up with the leftovers – perhaps official meetings that don’t exclude people with families to look after are more fair?

Obviously it’s not clear-cut, sometimes events must be given evening slots to ensure high attendance, and penalising people who do not have dependants is not always an acceptable trade-off. But the prevailing attitude is still that women have families and they are the most penalised; including being asked at interview whether they’ll “go off and have children”, despite this being illegal.

It’s not even that this is a new phenomenon. Women’s achievements have historically been ignored, erased, claimed by men as their own. We are having to work hard to show people that it’s not natural that the famous names are men – we just haven’t been permitted and taught to remember women.

Change: young minds

If you are working with children who want to get into this field, you need to be encouraging to them and try to make sure you’re not displaying behaviours that young women and girls will pick up on and internalise. We are not stupid, we live this and see it all the time so when someone who’s supposed to be advertising an industry to girls seems so ready to belittle and dismiss women, I am very concerned.

The most effective age for intervention activities is pre-adolescence, before negative attitudes appear.


Research from California suggests that children need to be taught these things before society can mould them and prejudices set in.

Not good enough

People who insist they have worked with and supported some women and say things like “But Florence Nightingale was great!” really isn’t good enough. We must at least try to understand that women, worldwide, in all professions, are systematically disadvantaged.

We are at increased risk of discrimination, violence, and being blamed for what other people choose to subject us to. Without accepting that a system of oppression is in place worldwide that constantly erects hurdles along women’s routes of progression, success and what should be simple choices, you cannot claim to be supporting women.

Many women frequently discuss these issues and we are repeatedly told to stop. We’re exaggerating.

"Yes, of course, love"     "Lighten up"     "Get a sense of humour"     "You're a scientist? But you're pretty"  "Other people have it worse, you know"     "Are you sure you understand?"    "Make me a sammich".

If official bodies (including parliament [14]) can do the work, look at the stats and tell you and everyone else that there is a problem, can you please accept that and start working to address it, not adding to the problems that already exist. It is actually part of the STEM Ambassador mission:

“The Government “funds STEMNET to run the STEM Ambassador programme which raises awareness amongst children and young people of the range of careers that science and technical qualifications offer”. Although not a central part of this inquiry, we are aware that the STEM Ambassador Scheme is very well regarded.

We have also previously recommended that engagement with industry should be a core requirement of teachers’ Continuing Professional Development as this would improve the provision of STEM careers advice to students.

We encourage the Government to work with the STEM community and schools to tackle gender stereotypes in education, particularly at primary level.

– Gender Perceptions in STEM Careers [14]. To quote that teacher you always respected, it’s so disappointing. Recently a colleague told me his daughter had explained how much street harassment she receives – he seems shocked and apologetic that he didn’t understand before (and her male partner still doesn’t) that this is a global problem that affects all of us.

Women are people, not possessions, not a different species, and we deserve the same respect you would show to your male colleagues and the same (if not more) encouragement as you would give boys showing interest in science. It should not require some personal experience to be able to empathise with women who tell you these things.


I’d rather budding feminist dads than sexist dads (like so many of us endured) but I’d rather still it didn’t require that one girl carrying your genes becoming so important to you that only in mid-late adulthood do you possibly start to consider women’s issues more widely. Understanding and working against sexism is a process. We have to acknowledge that we all harbour sexist prejudices – we cannot exist in our culture and not absorb those messages. So “women do it” isn’t an excuse – we are, again, human beings and equally fallible. From a favourite article:

  1. Sexism is a fake idea invented by feminists
  2. Sexism happens, but the effect of “reverse sexism” on men is as bad or worse
  3. Sexism happens, but the important part is that I personally am not sexist
  4. Sexism happens, and I benefit from that whether or not I personally am sexist
  5. Sexism happens, I benefit from it, I am unavoidably sexist sometimes because I was socialized that way, and if I want to be anti-sexist I have to be actively working against that socialization

So in this case, I would implore you to realise that: sexism is very real. It happens and disadvantages women. You can choose to avoid sexism. You also benefit from lacking barriers that are placed in front of others whose traits you do not share for historical and cultural reasons.

You are not, nor should you be, “genderblind” or colourblind or any of those things – if you think you are, re-examine this attitude because it is not helpful. You do not exist outside of society, you do not breathe “clean air” – you’re as dirty as the rest of us, and unless you notice and work on it, you’ll still contribute.

So I hope people who proclaim to be fair and helpful will in future reconsider joining in with the abuse of women in public (or indeed in private), because ultimately all fields and all facets of life need to be less restricted to men and male voices alone – how we think of our fellow human beings and address inequality is a fundamental part of that “fight”.

It feels like a fight so much of the time, because we are met with so much hostility, for even the smallest of things – for just existing, for daring to speak – and it’s tiring. But people care enough to keep pushing, because it is important. You may not agree with other people’s behaviour. You may not think you support it, participate in it or have anything to do with it.

But the thing that’s more important than saying “But not me!” is listening to people who do have those experiences, believing them, and helping. Not being dismissive and accusing people of lying. It happens all the time, I see it a lot – it’s infuriating. You can look at #yesallwomen for more on this (on twitter or the many articles based around it) [15].

Men’s sexism is not the same as women’s “sexism” (sorry, deal with it), just as black people are not and cannot be racist in the way that white people are. History and worldwide context is very important; there is a huge power imbalance at play that again, while you may not believe in or subscribe to, very much exists and makes the same actions impact upon different people in very different ways [16].

Looking ahead

I’d hope that people who have children/grandchildren or know any young people would want a fairer world for them – not just for the girls and women, but for the men as well – absurd ideas of masculinity/enforced strict gender roles harm men and boys.

Telling boys not to show their feelings, telling them they must be physically strong, that anger is a permissable emotion above all others; these things reduce men. Accusing women of being tempting and blaming them for what men do is to underestimate men’s humanity and responsibility. “Boys will be boys”? How about teaching them to treat other people with respect, as well as themselves, and don’t excuse unacceptable behaviour.

Stop teaching girls to accept abuse, “He only hurts you because he likes you!” – help them to appreciate and respect themselves and not to settle for those who seek to own them.

This is part of why I challenge people. I think it’s important, and I think people are capable of doing better than what we so often see and experience now, for everyone’s benefit.


  1. Women In Science – BBSRC blog
  2. Women trail men in securing Research Council grants – Times Higher Education
  3. RCUK look for evidence of quality – Research Professional
  4. Girls love science, we tell them not to
  5. PNAS: “Science faculty’s subtle gender biases favor male students
  6. Bias persists against women of science” – NYT Science
  7. Study: Sexual harassment is a real problem in science” – review of PLOS publication
  8. “Stemming the Tide: New Study Examines Why Women Leave Engineering
  9. How stereotypes can drive women to quit science
  10. Women in science, you have nothing to fear but your own subconscious” – Jenny Rohn, Guardian. Links re: hiring discrimination
  11. Sexual discrimination in science: why we must act now” – Guardian
  12. The House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee: Inquiry into Women in STEM careers
  13. Position paper, California State University: “Why girls participate less in science, engineering and mathematics
  14. UK Parliament Science & Technology: “Gender perceptions in STEM careers” (quoted above)
  15. Not all men: How discussion women’s issues gets derailed” – Phil Plait explains why “not all men!” isn’t useful, just in case what women say doesn’t get through
  16. As bad as each other – men’s sexism, women’s sexism” – different groups, same actions, different outcomes – history, social context.

More Links

By me:

Not just women

As is the case with any form of discrimination, it is not unconnected to others, and it is not just women who suffer in academia (and workplaces generally). People having or belonging to minorities; race, sexuality, physical and/or mental illness/disability – also face adversity in these fields and in life more widely.

So it is worth expanding these principles to them, drawing on their own specific challenges, and being mindful of the shared and distinct difficulties.

14 thoughts on “Women and sexism in STEM

  1. Martina

    Thank you for your courage – because that is what it takes to speak out and challenge the ‘grain’. As a woman your article resonates and as a mother to two girls, it has additional resonance for now and for the future they will grow up with and into.

  2. Thanks for drawing my attention to this post, Maz, it’s a really good one and I shall bookmark it for when this discussion comes up (only too often).

    It’s funny you should mention Florence Nightingale, as she’s a great example of ‘benign sexism’ – she’s seen always as the Lady with the Lamp, a caring figure who helped nurse the sick in the Crimean War. That’s pretty much how she was taught to me in school, and how she was taught to my niece. Yet she was a talented mathematician and statistician, and she applied those skills to study mortality and improve death rates in war hospitals and sanitation in India. She also invented the polar area diagram, a form of pie chart, and pioneered the use of graphics to communicate statistical information. But how much more feminine to portray her as the woman who professionalised nursing, rather than a mathematician!

    As it happens, she will featured in the next Ada Lovelace Day book, which you asked me on Twitter to mention. This is the second year that I’m editing an anthology of stories about women in STEM. I believe that part of the problem is that women in STEM are not only under-appreciated, when they are represented they are sanitised of any masculine traits and are instead presented as non-threatening, feminised figures. Ada Lovelace is often portrayed as a party-going socialite, rather than as the mathematical mind that she was, and her accomplishments are denied because some people are made uncomfortable by the fact that a woman was the first computer programmer.

    Last year’s book, A Passion for Science: Stories of Discovery and Invention, is still available at FindingAda.com/book, and covers the stories of some amazing women whose achievements and sometimes sacrifices in the name of their science go unremarked yet would likely be lauded if they were men. Chien-Shiung Wu, for example, solved Enrico Fermi’s chain reaction problem (it wouldn’t work, because of a build up of xenon) when working on the Manhattan Project, yet his is the name we know, not hers.

    It’s important that we tell the stories of women in STEM. We need to firstly normalise the presence of women in STEM, but also demonstrate that not only are they capable, they are capable of greatness. Human beings are narrative creatures and we understand the world through storytelling, often striving to impose a narrative even on events that don’t have them. Through telling stories to girls and boys alike, to men and women alike, about the inspiring women in STEM who mostly remain unknown, we can help destroy prejudice against women and encourage everyone to recognise our abilities and talents as equal to that of men.

    We might be going through a bit of a reversal with a seeming increase in sexism at the moment, but I believe that’s because it’s being talked about more, revealed where it was previously hidden, pointed out where it was previously ignored. I do think that at some point, sexism will be as unacceptable as other forms of prejudice. We can all do a little bit to help, as this blog post does!

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  5. I might write something about #shirtstorm, I might not. Either way, here’s a relevant thing:

    Intention isn’t everything. Apologies (grounded in understanding of wrongdoing) are good. Harassment is bad.
    Posting women’s home addresses and trying to get them fired because they dared to criticise a man? Appalling. Grow the fuck up, world.

    And here’s more on the supposed ‘lynch mob’ that went after Taylor. Compare and contrast.

  6. Pingback: Two steps forward and one step back: Philae and #shirtstorm | Justin Baumann, MS

  7. Lately people are discussing this new report, showing that apparently for STEM tenured positions in the US, women are twice as likely to be hired/favoured (it doesn’t include interview stage, so we can’t really say hired in this case)

    There are criticisms, obviously: http://othersociologist.com/2015/04/16/myth-about-women-in-science/
    And Science have briefly covered it: http://www.sciencemag.org/content/348/6232/269.full?utm_campaign=email-sci-toc&utm_src=email

    But it’s also been pointed out that a study I’ve used in this post has very similar methodological flaws – and I can only apologise for my inability to properly analyse this kind of study.
    It’s important to note studies’ flaws, for both ‘types’ of conclusion.

    There are a wealth of studies and accounts (while anecdotes may not equal data in a medical/’hard science’ context, I would argue they are in fact quite important in studies of experience, where emotional and wider-scale practical responses to situations of mild to worse hostility are the subject in question) that demonstrate sexism, bias and unfair treatment in STEM and other careers, based on gender.

    This is a broad subject. Yes, there are contradictory results (as one would expect if enough studies are conducted), and where they hold up to scrutiny and demonstrate actual progress or favour, that’s a good thing and worth noting. But at no point must we be complacent and think this means SEXISM IS OVER – holy crap it is not.
    This stuff starts early in life, not just in the workplace, and without education at every step, we are never going to even near equality. Not supremacy, MRAs, hold your horses. Equality. Not just based on what chimps do, either, because last time I checked – we’ve moved on a little bit.

    We do not have that. One study that throws up something surprising should not be used as a stick to beat people speaking out about this into submission. So please don’t do that.

  8. Hooray, another one!

    “Omg now people are burning him at the stake!!”

    Mm, because that’s such an awful thing to do. Something that is and was done *to women* (only a few instances of men). Good metaphor you’ve chosen there.

    And actually, no, people aren’t. They’re saying LOOK – this is the kind of thing people are putting up with, where the old boys are venerated and held to lower standards of behaviour than the rest of us, just because they have contributed scientifically. Which plenty of people have managed to do *without* holding such damaging views (and expressing them loudly).

    We have to be free to criticise this. The voice that says no, this is not acceptable has to be both permitted and listened to. Or what ever changes? HOW do we know this is old and out of date, if when we say so, we’re told we’re being unreasonable?

    Utterly disappointed with the Royal Society’s response. The narrowmindedness of thinking ‘oh he’s just one old bloke, his view doesn’t matter’ while saying ‘but such a fantastic scientist!’ harms no one, or affects the field not at all, is staggering.

  9. Pingback: Men: when to stand up, when to pipe down – ThermalToy

  10. Pingback: International Women’s Day: action – Purely a figment of your imagination

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