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Katherine Mathieson, Chief Executive, British Science Association

Picture this: you’re young, female and it’s your first day working at a world-leading tech company.

You’ve grafted hard to get here; rigorous exams, a graveyard of textbooks and job applications in your wake. You sit at your desk, full of nerves, feeling the glare of colleagues through the windows that frame every inch of the swanky offices. But despite your self-consciousness, you’re optimistic – the world is your oyster, this is your time. Right?  

Then out of the blue comes an email, which reads: “Women, on average, have more neuroticism… as long as tech and leadership remain high status, lucrative careers, men may disproportionately want to be in them.”

You wonder: was I right to be self-conscious? I don’t belong here. I always knew I was unusual, being the only woman in my lectures, but I thought I would feel better when I had a “proper job”. I’ve earned my place here, haven’t I…?

You couldn’t make it up

You may be shocked to hear that this story is real. Last August, Google software engineer, James Damore sent the infamous “Google memo”: a multiple page document detailing women’s biological inferiority in tech. A horrific example of bigotry, which left his fellow employees “shaking in anger”.

Despite decades of effort, a recent study showed we may be centuries away from achieving gender parity – 280 years in computer science alone. The glass ceiling still exists. With examples like the Google memo, it’s easy to see why.

Sadly, sexism is still widely prevalent, even in the most well-meaning people. A phenomenon we all suffer from is unconscious bias, where we make instinctive decisions and actions based on our background, experiences and cultural influence.

Riddle me this…

Psychologist, Deborah Belle, says: tell people the following riddle and the majority are baffled: “There’s a man and his son in a car crash. The father’s killed, the son rushed to hospital. But the duty surgeon says: ‘I can’t treat the boy. He’s my son.’” People mostly assume that the boy was adopted, or that his dad was in a same sex relationship. In fact, the duty surgeon was his mother.

There’s no wonder that this unconscious bias seeps in. When you image search “doctor”, 75% of pictures are of men, even though in 2017, the percentage of male, licensed doctors was 53%. A study also showed that when male doctors are introduced, their title is used nearly 100% of the time, but when females are introduced, their title is used less than half the time.

Believe me, you belong here

This may seem depressing, but I believe there’s hope. We can all make a difference through small changes in the language we use, the stories we tell, the imagery we show. Making conscious adjustments means we’ll start to chip away at the unconscious bias that’s holding back women in STEM.

It’s also heart-warming to see bigger shifts happening. Google fired James Damore who wrote the memo, and there was a huge outpouring of support from the media and people online, to both the women who worked with him and in the wider tech sector generally.

So, while there’s still a long way to go, I’m optimistic about the present and future for women in STEM. I work with a whole host of wonderful and capable women every day, who are proof you can thrive in the industry. But it’s not just the responsibility of those in the sector to spread the right messages and break down barriers, it’s the responsibility of us all. Things like this memo are societal problems, not science problems. We can all make little changes to help our young women believe that yes, you do belong here.