Here come the girls

Materials scientist and women in STEM campaigner, Dr Jess Wade, on her efforts to get women in science seen, and encouraging girls to pursue physics

What made you want to start campaigning for women in STEM, and specifically to write the Wikipedia pages?

It isn’t news that women are underrepresented in science and technology, but as I got further in my scientific career I realised just how ridiculous it was. Scientific research is one of the most exciting, flexible and dynamic careers there is, where you are celebrated for collaborative and creative thinking. Alongside your work you can teach, travel and work between heaps of different disciplines. It makes no sense that there aren’t more women in it. I’ve always been lucky and supported in science, but I know that some others haven’t been and so have spent my time outside of research trying to get more girls in. Recently that’s shifted toward trying to make the community a better place for women so that they stay working in science; and that means celebrating the people who are already here.

I’m the kind of person who likes learning facts, and turn to Wikipedia frequently when I come across something or someone new. Whether it’s the history of a building or biography of a professor, I used to take it for granted that the information I read was impartial and unbiased. One day I met Dr Alice White, Wikimedian in Residence at the Wellcome Collection. Alice, a historian of science, was running a Wikithon for the Women’s Engineering Society (WES) to increase the quality and quantity of pages about women engineers on Wikipedia. For all biographies on English-speaking Wikipedia, only 17.67 % are about women – which is crazy when we make up half of the people on planet Earth. That means that 8 times out of 10, if you’re reading about a person on the site, you’re reading about a man. When the new Nobel laureate Donna Strickland (the first woman to win a Nobel Prize for 55 years) was announced, she didn’t even have a page. Wikipedia is a powerful educational tool, and as users of the site, we have a collective responsibility to make sure the content is the most impartial and honest it can be.

Do you think the treatment of women in STEM has improved in the last 5–10 years?

I don’t think much has changed in the last five years. The number of girls studying A-level physics and starting undergraduate degrees has remained persistently low (20–25%). We have a real shortage of subject-specialist teachers – very few people who teach physics, further maths and computer science actually have degrees in those subjects. Alongside that there are damaging gender stereotypes that propagate through our society – to the extent that we give boys and girls gendered toys, clothes and aspirations from a super-young age. Because schools reflect biases that appear in society, teachers expect less of girls in maths or physics, and, as a result, girls expect less of themselves.

Science is still a tricky place to be a young woman: you can be isolated, you can experience bias in your promotion and chances at publishing/earning grant money, and have a hard time if you take time out to raise children. Scientific research requires you to travel and move about a lot; contracts are short and work can go on late into the night. I think the ‘Me Too’ movement has done a lot for women, giving the silenced a voice and the isolated a network. I’m proud to support other women around me.

You are currently campaigning to get a copy of ‘Inferior’ in all UK schools. How is it going? Do you currently have any other campaign plans up your sleeve?

After almost 20 years of research, the UK’s learned society of physics (the Institute of Physics), who create policy and work with teachers and researchers, published a report called Opening Doors. It documented their work with schools across the UK to identify and address gender imbalance within physics. What they identified should come as no surprise – gender bias is not confined to science labs. Schools with the lowest numbers of girls in physics have the lowest numbers of boys in modern languages and art. The traditional approach of just talking to girls about physics is not enough. Nor are visits from one-off high-achieving role-models, patronising poster displays or renaming a lab after a famous woman in science. To have a real and sustained impact on the number of girls in physics, you need to involve the whole school and, crucially, the girls’ parents. You have to involve young people in talking about and tackling gender stereotypes. That’s where Inferior came in – I wanted to give young people the evidence and confidence to have these conversations, whether they are around the dinner table, or in the classroom. We’ve raised enough money to get a copy into every secondary state school in the UK – the publishers, 4th Estate, are even publishing special editions – and we’re a fifth of the way through getting them into NYC. The books will be printed during the winter term, then be ready to launch in spring next year.

I’m going to work with a bunch of great women to make some educational resources to accompany them. Oh, and I’m dreaming up some kids’ books about my research (materials science), so will keep you posted.

If you could change one thing about STEM and edtech education at the moment, what would it be?

I’d stop kids from specialising so early and push for a more interdisciplinary education. Maths complements physics, but so does art, English and philosophy.

We silo young people into subjects from the age of 14 or 15, and do a terrible job of showing how connected everything is. When universities were established during the renaissance they were built for ‘universal education’ – a comprehensive education across all different disciplines – and now we study one subject.

I love the edtech movement – it is inspiring and uplifting – I only wish more teachers engaged with it.