Heather Williams, ScienceGrrl director on overcoming science’s gender bias

In light of a new report from the Institute of Physics which states that nearly half (49%) of all co-ed maintained schools in England do not send even one girl on to do physics A-level, we talk to Heather Williams who works for the NHS as a medical physicist. She is a STEM (science technology, engineering and maths) ambassador and passionate about encouraging young people to engage with science. Heather is the director of ScienceGrrl, a network of volunteers producing the ScienceGrrl13 calendar which aims to showcase the female face of science and raise money for organisations that enable young women to be more aware of the range of potential futures available to them within STEM.

Tell us about your work in medical physics:
I’m a senior medical physicist at Manchester University hospital. I work in nuclear medicine imaging, which is a non-invasive way of diagnosing various diseases. I specialise in Position Emission Tomography (PET), a technique that produces a three-dimensional image of functional processes in the body. It typically involves giving a slightly radioactive injection to a patient and using a gamma camera to pick up the radiation it gives off as it is taken up in the body. I love it! Most days bring a new slightly different scientific challenge and I’m lucky to work with a great team of people.

What sparked your interest in physics?
I was lucky enough to have a friend of my parents’ that worked in medical physics. I did work experience with him when I was still at school and was hooked! From then on, I decided I would be a medical physicist. Teachers at school were also really supportive, with my physics and biology teachers being particularly amazing. I took physics, maths and chemistry A-levels and went on to study physics at university before embarking on my NHS training.

Why do you think women are unrepresented in science?
I think it’s a complicated mix of a lot of issues and there are two strands to the problem: less women going into science, and women leaving science before they reach the top. Female under-representation varies in extent between scientific disciplines but is most marked in physics and engineering. I don’t believe that the vast majority of women inherently dislike designing things and making them, or are inherently bad at this but something is stopping a disproportionate number of women (compared to men) translating this interest and ability into a fulfilling and valuable career as an engineer. Predominantly, gender stereotypes about what girls should and shouldn’t do seem to play a big part in this, as do some science teachers that are less than inspirational. There are less woman in science at the top of their fields and that results in a lack of visibility of female scientist to act as role models and so girls can’t associate with those career paths. It’s possible that women are underrepresented further down the line because there’s a very strong emphasis on an unbroken track record in science, particularly in academia. Obviously maternity leave will effect that and I think industry and academia have to recognise that it’s lack of flexibility that could result in their less than gender diverse workforce.

What is ScienceGrrl?
ScienceGrrl is a network of predominantly female scientists who are passionate about passing on their love of science, technology, engineering and mathematics to the next generation. Through our current project, the ScienceGrrl 2013 calendar, we aim to show the female face of science, by showcasing the work of a wide variety of female scientists doing an amazing range of science in partnership with their male colleagues. We want to celebrate what women are already doing in science and encourage new talent. ScienceGrrl was set up in a response to the European Commission launching “Science, it’s a girl thing” using their misguided video that tried to sell science to women with something that looked like a cosmetic advert. Twitter went nuclear that day, and I joked with my contacts that we should do a calendar of women scientists to counter the fake images used in the video. The response was overwhelming, and before long I’d been put it touch with a variety of people that would help bring this idea to life.

Who will benefit from the proceeds of ScienceGrrl13?
We’ve already committed to fund ‘Breakthrough: the Gender Stereotypes Project’ to develop primary school lessons for the National Curriculum that challenge gender stereotypes in science and are projects which will draw on the expertise and enthusiasm within the ScienceGrrl network to encourage more girls and young women to engage with STEM. We’ve also just agreed to fund places for school students to attend the Mission Discovery summer school at King’s College London, who would not otherwise be able to afford their place. We’re also looking to set up an online mentoring scheme to link up female scientific professionals with young women to counteract the problem of a lack of STEM role models.

Where can we buy the calendar?
Buy the ScienceGrrl13 calendar and bags at our online shop: www.sciencegrrl.com

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