The women already succeeding in science need to be visible and act as effective role models if others are to follow in their footsteps or return to the industry.

Senior female scientists say initiatives that recognise women’s research and also help to fund their careers are crucial to ensure greater female participation in a range of sectors across science, technology, engineering and manufacturing (STEM).

Programmes and award schemes such as the L'Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science programme are already ensuring that women’s achievements and potential in science are noticed and supported.

Dr Seirian Sumner is a senior lecturer of behavioural biology at University of Bristol. She won a L’Oreal-UNESCO fellowship in the first year of the awards in 2007 and launched Soapbox Science which engages the public with STEM topics using female scientists.

“Every woman in science is a role model. The undergraduates in my department are role models for girls at school and my female PhD students are role models for the undergraduates,” she says. “It is inspiring to see women at the top in science because it shows others what is achievable.”

Dr Sumner says the Fellowship has helped her build her own profile and spread the message publicly about science being a great career choice for women.

Another role model is Prof Dame Carol Robinson, a Royal Society Research Professor at the University of Oxford. She won the European Laureate L’Oréal–UNESCO For Women In Science award in 2015.

She says there were too few female scientists when she was growing up and that young women need to be empowered so they feel confident enough to embark on a science career.  

She also wants women who take a career break to bring up their children to have the conviction to return to science.

“I took an eight-year career break, which was considered a very long time but I don’t regret it,” she says.  “But I started to think, what am I going to do now? I wanted to return to science but had lost a lot of confidence.”

She adds: “After women have had their career break I would like to invite them into the department of chemistry at Oxford so that they can access the latest research in up-to-date journals. They could also get advice on their CV and presentations skills.  More generally I would like to help boost their confidence by bringing them back into a vibrant and supportive environment.”

A 2014 L’Oreal-UNESCO winner is Dr Eva Maria Greafe, a Royal Society University Research Fellow in the Mathematical Physics Group at Imperial College London.

She admits she has had to change her view on the industry because when she began her career she did not feel women should receive special attention in the science community.

“I grew up believing that men and women are equal and that feminism in the modern world was as necessary as an umbrella in the sunshine. I was offended when a first noticed a conference dedicated to female physicists,” she says. “But I soon started to realise the inequality that exists in science and how it was crucial that women who are doing well and carrying out great work were visible.”

She adds: “Young women and girls need to see women in science and see what they are doing. We can also be role models for men who will realise they can also get a better balance between family and work life.”