This article is sponsored by The British Council
This year’s theme for International Women’s Day, #BreakTheBias could not have come at a better time. The state of gender equality across science, technology, engineering and mathematics industry, also known as STEM, continues to be an area of serious concern as fewer than 30% of researchers worldwide are women, according to data from the UN Scientific Education and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). The report also stated that only 30% of female students select STEM-related fields in higher education.
As a typical STEM worker earns two thirds more than non-STEM workers, giving women equal opportunities to pursue STEM careers helps narrow the gender pay gap and would be a major contribution to the achievement of ‘Sustainable Development Goal 5: achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls’.
“We need more women in STEM to debunk the myth that ‘women in science are genetically indisposed in terms of contributing to STEM.’Dr Dalia Chakrabarty
Chakrabarty is a senior lecturer in statistics from Brunel University London who ‘broke the bias’ when she developed a new statistical method to learn the gravitational mass of the central black hole in our Galaxy.
Similarly, Dr Sam Gooneratne, a principal lecturer in the School of Computing, Engineering & Digital Technologies at Teesside University opined that STEM is in dire need of diversity, especially during current times. “We are facing uncertain times in terms of climate change and where the world is headed. It is extremely important that we have diverse viewpoints in tackling world problems and that half the world’s population should not be excluded from taking part in the act to safeguard our planet and people,” she stressed.
Both Chakrabarty and Gooneratne shared their views at an online webinar titled ‘Celebrate the Difference: Women in STEM webinar 2022’, held in conjunction with International Women’s Day on 8 March 2022. They were part of the seven-panel speaker webinar comprising of distinguished women STEM role models from both Malaysia and the United Kingdom who shared about their professional journey and experience in STEM.
Jointly organised by the British Council, Science Media Centre (SMC) Malaysia and The Petri Dish, the webinar featured women role models in STEM to highlight career opportunities from STEM education. The one-hour live session was moderated by Tan Su Lin, co-founder of SMC Malaysia.
Positive bias and the gender gap
Interestingly, several panelists shared their experience growing up in a single-sex education system where the environment projected a positive bias regarding what girls can achieve in STEM subjects. “Studying in an all-girls school until the age of 16, you have a mindset where you must be the best you can be, doesn’t matter whether STEM or humanities,” Gooneratne recalled. However that perspective changed when she later switched to a mixed co-ed school, “I get people wondering, why is a girl even interested in Add Maths? They had very different views,” she added while sharing her STEM journey from the support of her teachers who encouraged her to apply for Cambridge University, which she had never thought of doing.
Chakrabarty shared pertinent data from a recent survey conducted at her university’s Mathematics Department where equal numbers of students from both sexes enrolled in the Bachelor of Science in Mathematics. “We find that although there are the same boys and girls across all courses whether Statistics or Computational, girls tend to do better until the undergraduate level but once they hit postgraduate, the numbers and performance dropped,” she said while suggesting the possible reasons to women entering marriage and childcare responsibilities as contributing factors.
One of the major patterns of gender bias happens when professional women often find themselves running into after having children, especially within the Asian culture where women are expected to be the primary caregiver. “I think generational-wise that is changing but perhaps not quick enough. The workplace needs to be much more flexible. Scandinavian countries for example have much better uptake in terms of shared parental leave rather than just maternal leave,” Gooneratne added.
“Being a woman scientist in Malaysia can be challenging especially if you plan to pursue your career in administration”, said Prof. Datuk Raha Abdul Rahim, CEO of National Institute of Biotechnology, a division under the Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation (MOSTI). However, despite the hurdles, she sees women as facilitators for men and problem solvers. She also suggests women in STEM to focus on their research as it has more credence over administrative positions such as being a lecturer. “My advice is to strengthen your science. If you want to do administration work, focus on your science first and foremost as it is more sustainable,” she said.
Visibility matters for women in STEM
To increase the involvement of young girls and women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics also known as STEM, Associate Professor Institute for Research in Molecular Medicine, Universiti Sains Malaysia, Dr Oon Chern Ein conveyed the importance of having female role models to aspire to. “When women in the field face challenges, we tend to look for role models who have gone through similar situations and get their advice so that we get inspired to move forward in our careers”, said Oon who has received numerous awards for her work on molecular targeted therapy in cancer, including the prestigious L’Oreal-UNESCO For Women in Science National Fellowship in 2015.
Gooneratne added that it is imperative that women who are already in the field promote themselves to the public so that they are visible especially to future generations, making it easier for women to know whom to contact when in need of mentorship or advice.
“We need to show how many of us are in the field so that it becomes normalised – that there are women in STEM and a lot of us are doing the work, so now it’s about getting our faces out there.”Dr Sam Gooneratne
Pro-Vice-Chancellor, Faculty of Science, Liverpool John Moores University (LJMU), Prof Laura Bishop added the importance for women already in the field to pave the way to future generations. “It is extremely important for women to have the ambition to succeed in science and are facilitated by women who are already in STEM subjects to achieve their potential and contribute to the world,” she said.
The webinar was also held to launch the British Council Scholarships for Women in STEM to study a master’s degree, or an early academic fellowship, in science, technology, engineering or mathematics program at a leading UK university. Debbie Ann Loh, the current STEM scholar, states that when young women are involved in STEM, they become icons of empowerment to the upcoming generation. “They break barriers, push envelopes and trail blazed a new path for the younger generation to step up further,” she added.
Studying in the UK
Meanwhile, for Prof Datuk Raha, her time studying abroad had contributed to her personal and professional development where she had gained an ability to connect academic knowledge and apply the essential practical skills required in real life. “My experience in the UK paved the way to think outside the box, when I came back I became a better person than before I left for studies,” she said.
Debbie who is currently pursuing her Master’s programme in International Public Health at LJMU described her experience studying in the UK as a dream come true.
“It has been an amazing experience for me. I am very grateful for organisations like the British Council who are visionaries who see into the future and made it possible for young women like me to pursue higher education in STEM overseas.”Debbie Ann Loh, current Women in STEM scholar
Last year, 15 scholars including four from Malaysia travelled to the UK to pursue their master’s degrees in STEM subjects as part of the first Scholarships for Women in STEM cohort. This year, for the second year running, there will be double the number of scholarships on offer in South East Asia. A total of 29 scholarships from six UK universities are available for aspiring scholars from Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam.
Hosting UK universities include Brunel University, Teesside University, Edinburgh Napier University, Liverpool John Moores University, University of Glasgow and University of York. Associate Professor in Microbiology, Edinburgh Napier University, Dr Sophie Foley added that a postgraduate degree in the UK adds value in terms of employability and global exposure.
Awardees of the Women in STEM Scholarships will have access to economic support, including tuition fees, stipends, travel costs, visas, health coverage fees and special support for mothers.
To learn more information on the Women in STEM scholarships programme, please visit:
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