‘Oh, a female!’ These were the first words I heard when I walked into my A Level Physics classroom, and the surprise in that student’s voice has stayed with me ever since. STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) have traditionally been dominated by cis white straight men, and sadly, that’s still the case. I’ve been an aspiring physicist and a feminist for about as long as I can remember and as a result, I’m so grateful for the opportunities presented to me today, but I know the fight for equality is far from over.
I’ve encountered many people who seem to think feminism simply isn’t necessary anymore, that if men and women are equal by law then surely there isn’t a problem. The huge gender divide throughout STEM subjects – which gets worse the more senior you become – says otherwise. Women and non-binary people are still at a disadvantage when trying to enter these careers and those who make it often face accusations of only being hired for diversity. I still feel an extra pressure to do well because I know there are those who will accuse all women of being bad at physics, or bad at maths if they make a mistake. Outdated gender roles are still a huge part of our society whether we realise it or not; take one look at the ‘girls’ and ‘boys’ toy sections and I’m sure you’ll see what I mean.
There are also a huge lack of positive role models for women and people of colour wanting to pursue science. The quote ‘you can’t be what you can’t see’ springs to mind. A more diverse workforce not only inspires more people to want jobs in STEM, it helps rid people of their unconscious biases. And if you don’t think you have any unconscious bias, try taking the Harvard Implicit Bias test. I believe all workplaces should strive towards diversity in terms of gender, race, sexuality and religion, both morally and because the workplace will function better as a result. Personally, I’ve never been afraid to enter a male dominated workforce. I’m often told I’m brave but the lack of representation just makes me more determined to succeed.
For me, this is where feminism comes in. For a start, I probably wouldn’t even be doing a Physics degree if it wasn’t for hundreds of years of work by women to fight for equal opportunities in education. But I’m also constantly inspired by the work of feminists who encourage women to take up space, make their voices heard and to fight back against the patriarchy. I know I have the backing of an amazing online community, an array of books, articles and podcasts and the wonderful people I meet who also want to strive for equality.
The feminist movement has also been doing amazing work to bring attention to female scientists throughout history, celebrating their achievements, and giving credit to women whose work had previously been accredited to a man. This has been a big step forward in providing positive role models for young girls, but the vast majority of scientists shown in the media still fall into traditional stereotypes. And of course, the majority of scientists shown in the media are straight, white and male. This isn’t a problem unique to the STEM industries – underrepresentation of minority groups permeates almost every workplace and a huge amount of the media we consume. So how do we fix this?
Ideally? Deconstruct the patriarchy completely. But let’s talk short term. Educating everyone on the issues that are still present is vitally important. Feminism can’t just be a women’s issue – men need to be just as informed and actively work against sexism and the gender roles in our society. We also need to work towards diversity, everywhere.
If a group you’re a part of isn’t very diverse, why not? And what can you do to make it more inclusive? Support the work of female scientists and try and lessen your own subconscious biases. And most importantly, as hard as it might be, if you’re a woman, a person of colour or a member of the LGBTQ+ community, ask for inclusion and make space for others to be included. Take part in panels, put yourself forward for leadership positions, do good work and be open about the struggles you face along the way.
Attending a diversity in Physics conference gave me so much hope for the future – I’m so glad that groups like these exist to address and tackle underlying problems in the scientific community. There was a diverse group of attendees, many of whom had experienced problems like sexism, racism or ableism, as well as those who attended to learn about what others faced and how to use their own privilege for good. Intersectional feminism benefits everybody and I’d love to see feminism used to make the STEM community even better.