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Why Diversity is Essential for STEM Subjects

Why Diversity is Essential for STEM Subjects main image

STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) are widely regarded as having some of the biggest gaps in diversity, particularly when it comes to gender equality.

While research has consistently shown that gender equality greatly benefits business (with one study from Forbes finding that teams with equal numbers of men and women generate on average 41 percent more revenue for their employer), you’d still be hard pressed to find a university classroom in a STEM subject where the amount of female students is higher than, or even equal to, their male counterparts. 

Furthermore, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) states that less than 20 percent of students registered on STEM PhD programs are female.

One woman helping to break down the barriers is Robyn Kiy, a first-year pharmacology PhD student at the University of Liverpool. After completing her undergraduate degree in pharmacology at the university, she decided to undertake a master’s with Liverpool which took her on placement to Cambridge with MedImmune (now a part of Astra Zeneca), before returning north to start her PhD. 

Robyn describes how she initially decided on pharmacology:

“I just stumbled across pharmacology when I was desperately looking at UCAS forms! It seemed like the perfect balance of a lot of human biology and bits of chemistry, and you can see how it could be applied in the real world to improve health.” 

Due to the coronavirus outbreak, Robyn’s own lab work has had to take a back seat, as universities across the country have closed their doors. Robyn says that it’s “frustrating that it’s been put on hold”, but that she’s able to fill her time with writing reviews and catch up on reading. 

Liverpool contributing to the COVID-19 cause

However, Robyn hasn’t just been working on her PhD studies, she’s been taking an active role in helping to beat the coronavirus. She explains:

“The University of Liverpool is where one of the outbreak labs are. We’ve been receiving thousands of samples from patients who are in hospital with the coronavirus from all over the UK, and we've been processing those, storing them, and shipping them back out to different research facilities.

“Then, they can start to characterise the virus and try and understand why certain people seem more likely to get it or are more likely to have severe symptoms from it. It's been good to feel like I'm doing something useful while I can't do my own lab work.”

The practical application of STEM subjects, particularly their potential to help people, was something that really resonated with Robyn when deciding on pharmacology:

“It sounds really clichéd, but I think one of the main draws of STEM for me is that there are so many careers where you are tangibly making a difference. It's a way of applying that to the real world, especially at the moment when you can directly see the impact that scientists are having with COVID-19 testing.” 

How can we encourage more diversity in STEM?

It’s no secret STEM has a diversity problem, with a myriad of different suggestions on how we can encourage more diversity in the field the focus on many university conferences and research. 

Eindhoven University of Technology in the Netherlands have started only hiring women until they reach a quota of 30 percent or more female professors and faculty, which has caused controversy among some (mainly male) academics and commentators, who argue that quotas do more harm than good. Robyn gives her views on this:

“I know when it comes to quotas a lot of people say that, obviously, you should be hired off your merit, which I don't disagree with.

“However, I think a lot of people fail to understand that when it comes down to a woman and a man being equally employable, a lot of companies are just employing the man, based off nothing other than the fact that they are male.”

Robyn has some suggestions for how encouraging women and other minorities to get into STEM, suggesting that it has to be done at a grass-roots level to really make a difference.

“I think when people come into schools and talk about careers, it would be great if there was a special effort made, with subjects traditionally seen as being male dominated. It'd be great if the speakers that were invited were women, or people of different ethnicities.

“I've seen a lot of people say, especially in relation to the Black Lives Matter movement, you can't be something if you can't see something. So, if you've not seen a black female scientist, you might not think that that's attainable when of course it is, if that's what you want to do.

“My PhD is supervised by three female academics, which is something that's important to me – they’ve done so well in their careers that it’s great to be backed by people like that.” 

Who are DiMeN Diversity?

Robyn’s PhD is funded by the Medical Research Council, by a doctoral training partnership which has students at the University of Liverpool, the University of Leeds, the University of Sheffield and Newcastle University: DiMeN, the Discovery Medicine North partnership.

Along with colleagues from Liverpool, as well as at Leeds, Sheffield and Newcastle, Robyn helped to co-found the group DiMeN Diversity. She explains:

“A while ago, a group of us got together, people of different genders, races and sexualities, and we're trying to highlight the barriers that elements like this, as well as disability and religion, can bring in pursuing STEM subjects.

“We want to promote inclusivity within STEM and try and celebrate the diversity rather than let it be something that holds people back.” 

Robyn explains the steps that the group are taking to spread the word and encourage more diversity in the field:

“At the moment we're planning an online event with talks from different people, including people high up in the NHS or academics who have faced barriers because of their race or their sexuality throughout their careers, and trying to highlight how we need to improve inclusivity in STEM.

“We’ve been really pleased with the responses, there are a lot of similar groups from different funding bodies and also different companies trying to promote the same thing who support us.” 

She sums up the attitude that she thinks her fellow STEM academics, and higher education authorities in general, should be taking towards diversity:

“I listened to a really interesting talk the other day by Lord Simon Woolley, who is the chair of the race disparity unit. It was part of a wider talk about race equality in higher education, but at one point he said the phrase ‘deliberate activism’. I think that's something that STEM subjects, as a whole, really need to strive towards, because being passive on matters of diversity isn't going to achieve anything.” 

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Written by Julia Gilmore
Julia is the Assistant Editor for TopUniversities, publishing articles for students and graduates across the world. A native Londoner, she holds an MSc in Marketing Strategy & Innovation from Cass Business School and a BA in Classical Studies & English from Newcastle University.

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