Interviews Editor Angelos Sofocleous, talks to Mairi O’Brien, Third year Physics student and Co-President of Durham University Women in STEM society.
Durham University Women In STEM (previously Durham WISE) is a student-run society consisting of a mix of undergraduate and postgraduate students, across a range of STEM subjects.
What does your society do to support women in STEM?
Our society focuses on showing the women currently studying STEM subjects at Durham that there are many career options available to them within STEM and provides them with an opportunity to listen and talk to employers and Durham alumni about their careers. It also provides a community for women to get to know each other using our social events.
Which do you think are the reasons that women are underrepresented in STEM fields?
I believe that this problem begins in as young as primary school children. From the toys we are given to play with to the TV and films we watch, we are being shown that there is an expectation for girls to enjoy certain things. We are shown through the media and in real life that men dominate STEM fields, and this reinforces the idea that this is not something we would succeed at as women. Once we reach sixth form age, many girls will not choose to study A-Level subjects like physics and computer science. According to the Institute of Physics, only 22.2% of physics A-Level students in 2017 were female. From those, even fewer continue to study STEM subjects at university. Some subjects, like biology, are female dominated at undergraduate level, but this is not the case higher up in the department.
Which are the biggest barriers that women in STEM face at Durham University?
As a physics student, I personally feel outnumbered in my lectures, and sometimes out of place. I have no female lecturers this year at all, and for many other STEM subjects there are very few female lecturers and professors too. It is difficult not seeing many people like yourself being successful in your field, and sometimes students can feel excluded. With a lack of role models available, it is the case that many female STEM students do not choose to pursue a career in STEM.
What do you think should be done to solve these issues?
There is little that can immediately be done about the fact that there are few female lecturers and professors, it will take years for this to balance out. I believe it would be good for the female professors and department staff to make themselves visible. I am the undergraduate rep for the Equality, Diversity and Inclusion committee in physics, and I believe that committees like these should promote the work they are doing to students, to show what is being done in the different departments across the university.
How can men in STEM support women in STEM?
Come to our events! It is always great to see men at our events, as we want to make sure we are not cutting ourselves off further by making our events exclusive to women. It gives people a chance to see successful women in their respective fields and may change people’s perceptions of what a STEM graduate looks like. It is also good for everyone to have awareness of how women are outnumbered in certain subjects, so if you study a very male-dominated subject, take a second to look at how many women are in your lectures, and become aware of how they may feel.
What can one gain from joining your society?
Our society membership is free, and events are open to all genders. We offer the opportunity to interact with graduate recruiters and women (and men) from a variety of STEM fields, to ask them questions about what they do and understand what is available after university. We also have a de-stress event and other socials planned for second term, which are all free to attend!
By Angelos Sofocleous