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Soapbox Science - Bringing Female Scientists to the Streets

Feb 15 2016 Read 3776 Times

Author: Emily Bell, Nathalie Pettorelli & Seirian Sumner on behalf of Institute of Zoology

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Soapbox Science is a grass-roots science outreach festival that aims to bring cutting-edge science to the public on urban streets. At the same time we promote the visibility of female scientists and equality in science careers. We do this not by talking about the problems facing women in science but by getting inspirational researchers, who just happen to be women, to take to the streets and share their passion for science with the unsuspecting public. Since its conception in 2011, Soapbox Science has hosted events in 8 different cities around the British Isles, reaching over 40,000 members of the public. We strive to challenge stereotypes on the perception of who a scientist is, provide role models for a new generation of equality and diversity in science careers, and revolutionise how scientists integrate their science with society.

Underrepresentation of Women in Science

In both the United States and European Union men and women tend to be equally represented in many undergraduate and graduate science programmes. However, as you climb the academic ladder within Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) subjects the proportion of women plummets, with less than 20% of STEM professors in UK academic institutions being women. But what are the reasons for the ‘leaky pipe’ that leads to gender inequality in the science market?
The formative years for an early career scientist are critical and progress during these years can make or break a career. One of the most cited reasons for women ‘leaking’ out of the science career ladder is that these crucial years often coincide with the preferred time for starting a family. This can make short-term postdoctoral positions abroad, long hours in the lab, and intensive networking at conferences unattractive to women in particular. But this is only part of the issue: stereotype threats, lack of female role models and implicit bias are also factors. The problem lies both with the public’s opinion of what a scientist looks like and also unconscious bias within the academic system. For example, a 2015 L’Oreal for Women in Science/UNESCO public survey revealed that the majority of Europeans between the ages of 18-55 still describe a scientist as a man. Recent research shows how academics (both male and female) are guilty of unconscious or implicit gender bias: female applicants for academic positions are assessed as weaker candidates than their male counterparts, even though CVs and qualifications are identical.

Despite national initiatives, such as the Athena SWAN chart which aims to improve gender equality in science within the academic arena, the heart of the battle lies in changing cultural perceptions of who a scientist is. The paucity of female role models at the top of the food chain in the scientifi c workforce, and the lack of diversity in the science media only further reinforces the stereotype that STEM subjects are for men. The low visibility of female scientists compared to male scientists is the reason why programmes such as Soapbox Science exist: to help promote and tackle this issue. As Professor Hilary Lappin
Scott (Swansea University, Soapbox Science speaker 2013) said “[Soapbox] is one way to make a really big difference … such events raise the profi le for more women in STEM.”

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