How do we tackle science’s diversity problem?
Type in ‘is science elitist?’ into google and you’re immediately faced with a plethora of articles stating that “yes it is and so it should be”, promoting the idea of a meritocracy where only the brightest, most gifted brains rise to the top.
In part I agree. Science is a challenging and dynamic field that requires a certain level of intellect and resilience to be any good at it. But to think of science as a pure meritocracy is naïve at best. It ignores the social barriers that many face because of their gender, class or ethnicity.
The lack of women in science has received widespread media coverage and has prompted a rise in initiatives such as WiSET, ScienceGrrl and Athena SWAN. Despite their tireless work to encourage more women to take up science, this ‘one size fits all’ approach has proven to be ineffective at reaching a large number of young girls who feel completely removed from the scientific community.
Many women argue that a lack of female role models is to blame. Although most children can see beyond the crazy-haired, white-coated image of a scientist, they still only recognise a very small number of ‘famous scientists’ who are overwhelmingly white men – Einstein, Brian Cox and David Attenborough.
So do we need more female scientists in high powered positions or on the TV?
The Institute for Public Policy Research has warned that we must be cautious of regarding the increased presence of “women-on-the-board” as a marker of equality: “These measures create only the semblance of progress, leaving in place the political, economic and cultural inequalities that affect working-class, disabled and ethnic minority women most profoundly.”
Initiatives such as these run the risk of tackling inequality from a one dimensional perspective that would encourage a steady stream of women from affluent homes, effectively replacing one stereotype with another.
If we are to solve the problem then we must take a more nuanced approach to understand how gender interacts with ethnicity and class disadvantage to hold some back while others excel.
Those holding scientific aspirations are disproportionately likely to come from middle-class and white or south-Asian backgrounds, a 2014 report by CaSE has found. However, with regards to science education, it is white, working-class boys that perform the worst, closely followed by those from black Caribbean backgrounds. The gap between the white, working-classes and their less-deprived white peers is the largest of any other ethnic group. So perhaps the lack of diversity in science is more of a class issue?
A 2013 report by ASPIRES has demonstrated that for children from disadvantaged backgrounds, there is a disconnect between interest and aspirations, with research showing that even those who enjoy science and do well can decide from an early age that science is ‘not for me’. Surprisingly, the report also concludes that showing alternative images of scientists (women, ethnic minorities) does little to change their minds.
The problem is ‘science capital’ or a lack thereof. The choice to study science is strongly influenced by emotional, identity-based and cultural factors. If you come from a socially and economically deprived background, you are unlikely to know anybody who works in science or even engages with the scientific community.
Science education often presents a narrow view of what it means to be a scientist and what careers are available. This lack of knowledge about the breadth of science careers has a detrimental effect on young people’s aspirations, particularly those who cannot access this information elsewhere.
We need to show young people that there is no stereotypical STEM job; that it’s not all lab coats and pipettes. There are hundreds of paths you could take and you can do so even if you aren’t the smartest or wealthiest kid in your class. Alternative and more diverse post-16 routes into science e.g. apprenticeships and applied qualifications could help to bridge the gap.
While I admire the work of these ‘women in science’ initiatives, helping one group into science should not mean we ignore the needs of another. A shared policy commitment to ‘science for all’ could help attract more diverse talent to STEM to help fulfil its national economic remit. Public outreach and science communication in disadvantaged schools are an important way to break down these social barriers into science, providing ‘science capital’ to those who need it most.