On Wednesday 28th November 2018 I had the honour of delivering the keynote at the Women of the Future event. Full of real-life stories surrounding my journey into a career in science, I was quite frankly impressed that any of the attendees, all senior school girls from the wider Norfolk and North Suffolk area, managed to stay awake for it after the action-packed day that they had already taken part in at the John Innes Centre in Norwich. From demo lectures to careers speed dating with a range of amazing scientists from across the Norwich Research Park and beyond, by the time we congregated in the auditorium the girls were buzzing, and the keywords flying around were testament to the high levels of engagement achieved through the range of activities carefully chosen for the day.

Some of the speakers at the Women of the Future event

Just some of the speakers at the Women of the Future event; l-r, Mikhaela Neequaye,  Helen Cavill, Samantha Fox, Suze Kundu and Jemima Brinton

The aim of the day is to showcase the huge range of careers available to students within the sphere of science, technology, engineering, maths and medicine; STEM(M). Why put on an event just for girls though? Is this positive discrimination? The short answer is, no. It can be seen as positive action to address an issue. There is a huge problem with gender imbalance in STEM(M), which is just one of the issues the profession faces when it comes to lack of representation. Our recent panel discussion on Diversity Beyond Gender at SpotOn London 2018 attempted to shine a light on just some of these other underrepresented groups, but at the end of the day the message from everyone is the same. Science1 shows us that a more diverse workforce is a more productive workforce. When it comes to gender, if numbers are indicating that for some reason girls at school are not turning into women in STEM, perhaps it is something to do with how we are engaging with them around STEM. The 2017 Women in STEM report published by WISE2 stated that women only make up 23% of the STEM workforce, when they make up around 50% of society.

Recent studies3 have shown that girls in school benefit from early exposure to STEM related activities, and that their goals and motivations for studying STEM subjects are around helping people, creating things, and knowing that they will be studying a subject that will open many doors for them. A career in STEM, whether that is in research, teaching, consultancy, management, the media, politics, or any other career, is packed with all of these main drivers and so much more. In order to therefore increase students’ exposure to STEM careers and STEM role models, many Outreach days like the John Innes Centre’s Women of the Future event take place across the world.

Taking part in such an event is not just good for students; it can also give STEM professionals a fresh perspective on the work that they are doing. When faced with the wide-eyed wonder of school children first finding out about the work you are a leading expert in, it is difficult not to be reminded of the child-like curiosity that drove you to your chosen career in the first place. Being able to communicate your work with a range of audiences is also inherently increasing the engagement with, and impact of, your work, especially if you are able to convey the technicalities of your role and the relevance of its outputs in everyday life with the right analogies so as not to remove any of the accuracy of your explanation, just the jargon.

Showcasing a range of STEM careers

Showcasing a range of careers in STEM and reminding people that they can combine their hobbies with their research because STEM is everywhere could contribute to better uptake of STEM subjects by girls, and better retention of women within the STEM profession

The event was organised by, among others, Communications and Engagement Officer James Piercy and Research Scientist Samantha Fox. James is one of the most talented science communicators I have the privilege of knowing, and his wealth of experience in understanding what makes an activity engaging and worthwhile for a range of different people was a huge contributor to the success of the day. Samantha and I had met a month earlier at a Women in STEM event I was speaking at as part of Norwich Science Festival, and her passion for making STEM more inclusive was evident. Sparkling as she spoke, she enthusiastically told me about how she has developed the Youth STEMM Awards4 scheme which encourages young people aged 13 to 19 to engage with STEM(M) subjects within a scaffolded framework. Students can track their development throughout the scheme and work their way up to earning bronze, silver and gold medals through investigating, learning about, engaging with and inspiring younger people about STEM(M).

With all of this talent and more concentrated in one place, it is easy to see how the John Innes Centre was the first independent research institution to be awarded a Gold Athena SWAN award, given only to research institutions and departments that demonstrate the highest commitment to working towards gender equality.

So what did my keynote offer students to help the cause? The answer is hopefully a realistic summary of the challenges I have faced and how I have overcome them, but most importantly the range of things that you can do when you have studied STEM subjects, and the fun you can have doing them. By being one of the many faces of STEM, students like the girls I met at this event may have their eyes opened to a new career they had not year heard of, or a scientist with a personality like theirs that they can relate to. As the saying goes, you can’t be what you can’t see. Hopefully by having met so many inspiring women at the John Innes Centre, we have secured for ourselves a few more Women of the Future that will be the brains behind the discoveries yet to be made.

1: Diversity: A Nature and Scientific American Special Issue https://www.nature.com/news/diversity-1.15913

2: WISE 2017 report https://www.wisecampaign.org.uk/statistics/women-in-stem-workforce-2017/

3: Women’s interest development and motivations to persist as college students in STEM: a mixed methods analysis of views and voices from a Hispanic-Serving Institution https://doi.org/10.1186/s40594-017-0059-2

4: Youth STEMM Awards https://ysawards.co.uk/