“Girls should never be afraid to be smart.”

Emma Watson

The aim of the IWD 2023 #EmbraceEquity campaign theme is to get the world talking about “Why equal opportunities aren’t enough”.1

Does practising equity mean giving more opportunities to women? Does this put women at an advantage? People will already be saying that this is so unfair. But the thing is, fairness is only possible when everyone is the same to start with – and women systematically are not afforded the same starting point as their male counterparts. Until women are universally involved in a society that actively cares about their wellbeing and supports their existence in every area of life, in the same way men are supported, then an equal playing field just isn’t enough.

With women only making up about 25% of students studying physics at higher education2, even a woman being offered an interview for the same physics-based job that a man has been offered an interview for is not rooted in equity. Whilst this is equal, it is not equitable. With science being viewed widely as unfeminine3, there are large gaps in both the social and cultural capital between the genders. This means that entering into a job, women do not have the same extent of networks, contacts, or experiences as a man would have. This means there exists a self-feeding loop of lack of representation of women in STEM for students just making their first subject choices and career decisions which is inevitably off-putting for young girls thinking of pursuing a career in science. When the generation of students in question is fully settled in their careers, the next generation will still be missing the representation they need to make those choices. And so, the gender gap persists.

For women, even being awarded a position in a science-related role is a hurdle that men do not experience, with women being held to higher standards in the first instance4, and identical applications being given preferential treatment if they have a male name, rather than a female name. Once in a job in a field dominated by males, there are stronger gender biases in place. With men being invited to submit journals at double the rate of women5, the few women in STEM roles can’t demonstrate or showcase their work in the same way as men. Even with women in STEM roles, the representation for young girls simply does not exist.

Women are universally expected to juggle more roles than men, carrying out the majority of unpaid care work, and typically being described in biographies in relation to their roles as mother, daughter, housewife, rather than just their career, in the same way we see men being represented. How can we expect women to achieve the same as men by giving them equal opportunities when women are fundamentally seen as second-best? Uniformity and consistency do not mean fairness, they do not sum to equity, and it is not enough for women who for centuries have been dealt a bad hand in a game already stacked against them.

Now, having read this far, one can start to wonder what we can do about this. Gender bias is so intrinsically wound into the set-up of our society that it can be overwhelming to know where to start. This is where schemes such as the ground-breaking Physics Mentoring Project come into play. With an aim of increasing the uptake of physics at A-Level in Wales, the project targets those who are unsure if they want to take physics at A-Level. This means young girls with aspirations in science are reached in an informal, near-peer setting, where they can express thoughts and feelings while learning of the importance and transferability of a physics qualification.

For young girls to be able to interact with others – especially women – who have decided to pursue STEM, they are able to access the representation which they need to have the confidence to chase a science career but that is sorely lacking for them. The excitement of being able to reach out to young girls, who have a love for science but don’t have the confidence to pursue it, never runs out. Being able to see the change that this project has brought about in a generation of young girls across Wales is a privilege. I only have to imagine how valuable this project would have been to me and other girls in my GCSE Physics classes to know how important it is.

The existence of outreach projects such as the Physics Mentoring Project is such an important aspect in ensuring the education of young girls to encourage them to pursue careers they want and enjoy. The full breakdown of gender stereotypes will be a long road, not to be underestimated, but the recognition of the issue and tackling it at the root of those affected – the young girls lacking role models – is a key step forward and must be celebrated. Girls should feel able to pursue STEM in any form they want, without having to experience gender bias and hurdles that men don’t have to worry about.

This International Women’s Day, take a moment to think about the hurdles you have had to face in pursuing the career you have dreamed about. Take a moment to think about what you want for the next generation of young girls who want to follow in your footsteps. Take a moment to consider how far we have left before true equality, but also how far we have come. Take a moment to think about the ways you can break down barriers in your everyday life that take steps towards inclusion and representation. Finally, take a moment to be proud of yourself, all that you have achieved, and all that you are still to achieve.

[1]: https://www.internationalwomensday.com/Theme

[2]: Institute of Physics (2019). Students in UK Physics Departments.

[3]: Eyes on the Stars: Images of Women Scientists in Popular Magazines. Science, Technology, & Human Values, 13(3–4), 262–275

[4]: Publishing While Female: are Women Held to Higher Standards? Evidence from Peer Review. The Economic Journal, Volume 132, Issue 648, Pages 2951–2991

[5]: The Gender Gap in Science: How long until women equally represented? PLoS Biology, 16(4)