As someone who loves science – and passing that love onto the young people I teach – the International Day of Women and Girls in Science (11 February) is a good excuse to celebrate a topic close to my heart. I’ll say right from the start that I believe we should be striving for the day when there’s no need to mention gender in relation to any subject area; both as a parent and school leader, I don’t want any child to feel that their gender excludes them from pursuing a passion or career in any field. I’ve spoken before about the amazing work being done by diverse teams and I hope that our future will be one in which the best and most brilliant minds are celebrated without reference to gender, race or sexuality.
Nevertheless, in marking this particular international day, we can reflect that it is a complex topic and one that sees dramatic variation across the world. UNESCO data says that women account for under 30% of researchers worldwide but, for example, in Myanmar that figure is more like 80% while in Chad it is 5% . If we consider the UK specifically, the good news is that the numbers studying science at A level are now broadly equal between boys and girls (although physics remains heavily weighted to boys). In higher education, women account for 35% of STEM students and over a million women are employed in STEM occupations in the UK. However, while 46% of the total workforce of science professionals are female, despite a doubling in the number of women working in engineering over the last decade, they still make up only 10% of engineering professionals, so there are disparities even within the positive strides made in this country.
Many reasons are cited for the underrepresentation of women and girls in science, including the lack of role models or awareness of career paths. I didn’t have to look very far for an inspiring role model because my mother is a research scientist who combined motherhood with a full-time scientific career, which included being part of the team that carried out some of the research necessary for the cochlear implant to be a success and ultimately restore hearing to profoundly deaf children and adults. So not only did it seem normal to me for women to work in science, but I saw the real-world impact that scientific work has on society. I’m sure this influenced my early enthusiasm for science – and my desire to teach and pass on that enthusiasm – but for anyone who wants to feel inspired and to celebrate women in science, here are a few examples. There are so many amazing stories that this is not attempting to be any sort of definitive ‘top 5’ – it would be impossible to choose – but these women all worked in Britain and all made significant scientific contributions to society.
Mary Somerville (1780-1872)
As a girl in the 18th century, Mary had little formal education but her intelligence and thirst for knowledge led to her studying mathematics, Latin and astronomy and she became both an exceptionally accomplished scientist and science communicator. In 1826, she presented her paper ‘The Magnetic Properties of the Violet Rays of the Solar Spectrum’ to the Royal Society and, alongside Caroline Herschel (another pioneering female scientist), was the first woman elected to the Royal Astronomical Society in 1835. By that time, she had already published two books, explaining complex concepts in ways that could be more widely understood, and a subsequent book – Physical Geography – became a teaching staple in schools and universities until the turn of the 20th century. Mary was still publishing scientific works as she approached her 90s and, just a few years before her death, was the first signatory on the first petition to Parliament for women’s suffrage. Today, amongst many other legacies and memorials, Somerville College, Oxford, is named after her and she features on the Scottish £10.
Elizabeth Garrett Anderson (1836-1917)
As the first English woman to qualify as a doctor, Elizabeth undoubtedly made her mark. Her determination to study medicine was extraordinary; medical schools would not allow her to study and, when she gained a certificate from the Society of Apothecaries that would allow her to become a doctor, the rules were changed to prevent other women joining the profession in the same way. Determined to become a qualified doctor, she learnt French and completed a medical degree in Paris, but the British Medical Register still would not recognise the qualification. Having set up her own dispensary for women in 1870, she founded the New Hospital for Women in 1872, which was staff entirely by women. Her dedication and determination paved the way for the women who followed her, and an act was passed to allow women to enter medical professions in 1876. Elizabeth’s trailblazing approach to life did not end there – in her retirement she became the first female mayor in England.
Marjory Stephenson (1885-1948)
Marjory studied natural sciences at Newnham College, Cambridge, at a time when women were excluded from the university’s chemistry and zoology labs, and she became a biochemist who defined her own path and had a lasting impact on her field. The First World War, during which she served in the Red Cross and VAD and was awarded an MBE, interrupted her early career but she returned to Cambridge to teach and research after the war. She authored and co-authored many papers and Bacterial Metabolism, her book which was first published in 1930 but which was last reprinted as late as 1966, became a standard textbook for microbiologists and biochemists. Alongside Kathleen Lonsdale (another fascinating female scientist), in 1945 Marjory was one of the first women to be elected Fellow of the Royal Society. She was a founder of the Society for General Microbiology and the Society still awards a biennial prize in her honour.
Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin (1910-1994)
A chemist who studied at Somerville College, Oxford and undertook her doctoral research at Cambridge, Dorothy is the only British women to be awarded a Nobel Prize for science. In 1934, Dorothy returned to Oxford where she became a fellow and tutor in chemistry and began studying X-rays of insulin: work that she would continue for the next 35 years and which ultimately led to the feasible mass production of insulin. Dorothy made several important discoveries during her career, including solving the structure of penicillin (an achievement recognised by her election to the Royal Society) and describing the structure of vitamin B12 in the 1950s. Throughout her career, she was instrumental in developing X-ray crystallography techniques, which she used in her work on B12, and it was publishing the final structure of B12 that led to her being awarded the Nobel Prize.
And I nearly got to the end of this blog without mentioning Covid-19 but…
Sarah Gilbert (1962-)
Sarah is Professor of Vaccinology at the University of Oxford’s Jenner Institute. Her degree was in biological sciences and she investigated genetics and biochemistry in yeast for her PhD at the University of Hull. After a period in the brewing industry, Sarah returned to academia in the early 1990s and began looking at the genetics of malaria, which led to work on malaria vaccines. She established her own research group in an effort to create a universal flu vaccine and, in 2014, led the first trial of an Ebola vaccine. Sarah’s approach to vaccines – ones that produce a T-cell response – was innovative but she has also taken an innovative approach to how scientists work with ‘big pharma’ to ensure that scientific successes have viable, scalable applications beyond the lab, and the importance of this has been evident in the current pandemic. Sarah’s team was trialling a MERS vaccine when Covid-19 emerged and, when Chinese scientists published the genetic structure of the new virus, they designed a vaccine within a matter of hours. Within weeks they had a vaccine that worked in lab conditions, by April it was in manufacture for further testing, and human trials were rolled out over the summer. As we all know, the vaccine was approved for use in the UK in December 2020 and millions of doses have now been administered.
The work to develop this vaccine has been a vivid illustration of how science – something that can seem far removed from our daily lives – has real-world impact and matters to us all. It is also evidence of how much is possible when traditional obstacles are set aside and dedicated teams work collaboratively with one clear objective. There were enormous strides made in scientific knowledge in the 19th and 20th centuries – sometimes accelerated by crises such as world wars – but the speed of progress in the 21st century is unprecedented. We can only imagine what future generations of budding scientists will be capable of achieving when they follow in the footsteps of the brilliant men and women who have gone before.