Written by Suze Kundu

In The News

The science behind the stereotypes

It’s British Science Week so Dr Sujata Kundu from Imperial College London’s Engineering Department is here to talk women and science.

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Let’s play a game! Grab a piece of paper and a pen or pencil. Got it? Good. You have 30 seconds to draw a scientist or an engineer. Don’t over think it. Go! Time’s up, pens and pencils down – time to see what we’ve got here*.

Hmm…that hair has volume Dolly Parton would be proud of. And those glasses are very Hoxton Hero. As for that lab coat: hello Spring/Summer 2015!

Did you draw that? The middle-aged, middle-class male scientist with wild hair and a lab coat? Or did you draw something more realistic than the awful stereotype that dominates when we think of scientists and engineers?

British Science Week is an annual national celebration of science (and, despite being dropped from the name, engineering too) organised by my fantastic work neighbours the British Science Association. Until Sunday 22 March there will be events running in schools, universities, Scout clubs and Brownie packs up and down the country, mostly for free, and I reckon you will be hard-pushed to find any kind of ‘mad’ scientist.

Great celebrations of science and engineering like this allow the public to meet real-life scientists and engineers and enable us to bridge the gap between the lab bench and the real world. This form of public engagement serves many purposes. Adults can find out about the research their tax is being spent on – from missions to Mars to cures for cancer – while schoolchildren have the chance to break free from their curriculum chains to do some science and achieve the best learning objective ever: FUN!

BSW12As a self-confessed cheerleader for greater equality and diversity in science and engineering, the most important benefit of events like British Science Week is that it gives youngsters the chance to discover that scientists are normal people of all ages, backgrounds and genders. We need more scientists and engineers to fill a skills shortage so by showcasing the fun of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) subjects we can hopefully redefine the stereotype of science careers and scientists and entice more schoolchildren into the profession.

But what we need first is a better balance of men and women at all levels of scientific research and in academia. I am very lucky to work in an engineering department where we have incredibly strong female role models and a great gender balance which, I believe, contributes to a positive, creative and communicative working environment.

However, this is not representative of all science and engineering departments in the UK and not yet representative of our undergraduate intake, although it’s something we are working hard to address as a department and as an institution.

My department is also not representative of the profession as a whole, which is still male-dominated – particularly at higher levels. There is a ‘leaky pipe’ analogy used to represent the gradual loss of women in academia and research as you go up the ranks, which is terrible considering the fact we do not start with enough women in the first place.

Much of the UK economy relies on science and technology. In order to continue to excel in this field we must use the creative contributions of the best and brightest minds. By failing to address the gender imbalance in science and engineering, we are automatically discounting half of those brilliant ideas.

BSW17One way to address this problem is to target schoolchildren of all ages in an attempt to embed a more realistic idea of what a scientist is like and what they might do. But another major factor in how kids perceive STEM is how we as adults view science and scientists.

Often without realising it we are embedding dated stereotypes into children’s minds. I remember a friend telling me how his daughter, at around three years old, was playing a game where she had to match a picture of someone at work with the card that denoted their profession. The doctor in this case was female and yet, at the age of three, the little girl could not bring herself to label this lady as a doctor: “because doctors are men and nurses are women”. Where do these stereotypes come from at such a young age?

Though I adore The Big Bang Theory (filled with jokes that are often funny because they’re true), it makes me sad the only two female scientists in the programme started off with particularly socially awkward personalities, although I am pleased to see both characters have evolved to be far more human over time.

I hope events during British Science Week are able to break down some of these stereotypes, showcase scientists and engineers and, above all, give kids and adults the opportunity to rediscover the fun side of science!

If you are a parent or guardian you should find out whether your school is running an event and see if you can help. If you are involved in science or technology, consider asking your local school or community group whether you can give a talk or run some fun workshops during the week.

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If you’re stuck for ideas for awesome experiments, or you simply want to rediscover the messy magic of science with a niece or nephew (or just have fun with your flatmate) the British Science Week website has downloadable activity packs with shopping lists and instructions for demos and experiments that you can try, often with things you already have in your home.

If you don’t fancy getting your kitchen dirty ask your local school if they are taking part in Demo Day on Thursday 19 March and sign the pledge on the website. You can also get involved in some fun Citizen Science projects from the comfort of your desk or in the great outdoors. If nothing else, check the British Science Week website for safety guidelines and resources and head outside on the morning of Friday 20 March to witness an almost total solar eclipse (weather-permitting).

With any luck, by the end of British Science Week, those scientists that you drew earlier will have turned into someone that looks a lot like you.

*I would love to see your efforts. You can tweet them to me (@FunSizeSuze) using the hashtag #DrawAScientist.

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Written by Suze Kundu

Suze is a nanochemist, both literally and professionally, and a Teaching Fellow in the Department of Materials. Suze is also a science presenter, and loves dancing, live gigs, Muse and shoes. @FunSizeSuze