Breaking down the gender barriers

Authors of this article

Think of a pilot, or a doctor or a scientist. What do they look like?

The chances are that you thought of a white middle-aged male, and for the doctor or scientist they were probably wearing a white lab coat.

This automatic fall back to a social stereotype is known as unconscious bias. Everyone does it and our unconscious biases are based upon our background, culture and experiences.

However, this judgement on what someone should look like is incredibly damaging and influences a range of factors around the recruitment, training and progression of people who don’t fit that stereotype.

Yet, we can do things to limit the impact of unconscious bias. One way is to challenge and confront the stereotypes and to make gender, race and disability more visible in the workplace and media.

There are a number of events and organisations already doing this across the country, particularly for women in the Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) disciplines. Soapbox Science, Trowel Blazers and Finding Ada to name a few, are doing some fantastic work at raising the profile of women in science and inspiring the next generation.

However, for us as geologists, there was no event or organisation specifically tackling low numbers of females entering our scientific discipline in the UK.

Geologists face a particular social stereotype of the lone man, probably with a beard, smoking a pipe, wearing tweed and climbing a mountain with a rock hammer. This Victorian gentleman is clearly not a modern scientist, yet female students are still occasionally told at school that geology is not for girls.

This is down to the wildly out of date perception that it is too physical, or that being outdoors all day is not possible if you are a female. In reality, of course none of those things are true, and like many walks of life these days a geologist spends as much, if not more time, in front of a computer than in the field.

But as a result of these stereotypes and biases, Earth Sciences degrees at UK universities typically recruit around 30 per cent female to 70 per cent male students. A similar trend is found across the physical sciences.

It was the reason that four and half years ago, we decided to start an event to showcase the range of careers and possibilities open to women in the Earth Sciences – and Girls into Geoscience (or GiG) was born.

Girls into geoscience

This exciting one day workshop, with additional optional field trip to Dartmoor, will introduce female A level students to the Earth sciences and demonstrate the world of careers open to Earth science graduates today. 

With seminars from women working in geology, and hands on workshops looking at GIS, microfossils and planetary geology, this year’s girls into geoscience event isn’t one to miss. 

Geology isn’t just for the boys – find out more!

In the morning, female geoscientists from industry and academia talk about how they got into science and what their job and particular field of earth science involves.

So over the years we have had petroleum exploration experts, mining geologists, engineering geologists, academics, and a teacher all talk about their exciting and rewarding careers.

The aim is to give the girls the chance to hear how other women have made geoscience their career in the hope that by finding out how these women got there, and the challenges they may have faced, it can make a career in science more real and achievable. But it’s not just career women that can inspire. We also have students on hand to talk to the girls about their experiences.

Just a few years into their own science careers, meeting with other women who are like minded and of a similar age can have an amazingly positive impact on the girls attending.

The afternoon session is run by female academics, researchers, and technicians from the Earth Science subject area at the University and visiting students can choose two workshops from four, so that they can find out more about topics that interest them. 

Whether it is climate change, volcanism, planetary geology or geographic information systems (GIS) the girls can get hands-on with geological material and concepts, and each year we try to offer new workshops so that returning teachers can also keep learning new things.

We also offer an optional day field trip to the stunning granite landscape of Dartmoor. Seeing rocks in their natural environment is still an important part of being a geoscientist and this trip shows there are no barriers to females undertaking field work. 

The ethos behind GiG has always been to inspire girls, and to show them just how much women in STEM can do. Our aim has always been to demonstrate to those thinking about careers in science that there are real opportunities for women, and to show that there are amazing women doing what they want to do.

Providing role models is essential – be that a teacher, a mentor, or figures at an event such as this – and we put women at the forefront, counteracting the fact that women in STEM are often overlooked, and less visible than male counterparts. 

Overall through lab and field work, networking and talks, and a positive and open environment, we aim to give girls a real experience of science, open their eyes up to the possibilities, and show them that (to coin the popular twitter phrase) #thisgirlcan.

Athena SWAN

Athena SWAN is a national Charter designed to advance the careers of women in STEMM.

The School of Geography Earth and Environmental Sciences holds a bronze Athena SWAN departmental award.

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