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Addressing the Underrepresentation of Women in Science

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Read time: 4 minutes

We recently spoke with Jessica Wade, PhD, an award-winning physicist from Imperial College London to learn more about her extraordinary efforts to raise the profile of female scientists and other underrepresented groups in science.

During her career Jessica identified a distinct lack of diversity in science, particularly within the area of physics, igniting her passion to address bias within the scientific community.

Laura Lansdowne (LL): Could you tell us more about your efforts to boost the profiles of female scientists and other underrepresented groups in science?

Jessica Wade (JW): One day I met Dr Alice White, Wikimedian-in-Residence at the Wellcome Collection. Alice, a historian of science, was running a Wikithon for the Women’s Engineering Society (WES) to increase the quality and quantity of pages about women engineers on Wikipedia. For all biographies on English speaking Wikipedia, only 17.67% are about women – which is crazy when we make up half of the people on planet Earth (China is a little better at 24%). That means that 8 times out of 10, if you’re reading about a person on the site, you’re reading about a man. Wikipedia is a powerful educational tool, and we have a responsibility to make sure the content it is teaching, is the most impartial and honest it can be. It’s also important for our future – preserving the best account of history that we possibly can.

At the same time, I read this great book called "Inferior: How Science got Women Wrong" by an engineer-turned-science-writer called Angela Saini. The book provided lots of examples of cheerleaders throughout history who were pushing back against stereotypes and advocating for other women. That inspired me to think ‘I can do this now!’. So, I figured I could start making Wikipedia better, by telling the stories of women who otherwise might be forgotten.

LL: Since the media picked up on the hundreds of Wikipedia pages you wrote to address the underrepresentation of women in science, are there any projects or initiatives you have been involved in that you would like to highlight?

Sure! The WikiProject Women in Red and WikiProject Women Scientists. I’ve successfully crowdfunded to get a copy of Angela Saini’s book "Inferior" into every secondary state school in the UK, and we have similar campaigns in New York and Canada. Other projects to highlight include;  the Institute of Physics’ Gender Action Award, the 500 women scientists and 500 queer scientists networks

LL: Have you received any feedback or interactions with the female scientists you added to Wikipedia, if so, what has the feedback been like?

It’s wonderful! Sometimes I get emails from students and children asking me to make pages for their scientific influences, supervisors and parents. If the women scientists are alive, sometimes I get emails and messages to say thanks. Sometimes I get the chance to meet them too, which is totally surreal, because it’s like meeting a celebrity. But that’s not why I’m doing it – I know that academic science is full of pretty sensational people that aren’t getting the recognition that they deserve, and I’m here to change that.   

LL: Have you seen a change in attitude amongst the scientific community since your work came to public notice?

Sure, we’re talking about scientists from underrepresented groups more, and talking about how women and people of color have been left of out of history. I’m getting a lot of chances to share the stories of bias (unconscious and conscious) to people in positions of power, and great people like you, which is fantastic. I really want young people to read Inferior and realize they can all, irrespective of their gender, do whatever they want. I also want institutions to change their policies to better support people from underrepresented groups (see question below). 

LL: What outreach can we expect to see from you this year?

I’m nominating people for prizes (at least one a month), keeping up the Wikipedia work and championing people from underrepresented groups. I think we need to get more women and underrepresented minority scientists into school textbooks. I am also going to try to apply for research fellowships. I’m really into characterization of organic thin-films for electronic devices, and would love to lead my own lab one day. I’d make sure there was equality, diversity and inclusion embedded from day one. Oh, and I’ll also be sure to call out bad behavior if I see it! 

LL: How can others support the work you are doing?

If you’re interested in editing Wikipedia, make an account and search for the WikiProject Women in Red. If you need any advice, my friend Dr Alice White (Wikimedian in Residence at the Wellcome Collection) has put together a bunch of awesome guides.

LL: What can be done to encourage more women to get involved in science?

I think the problem for women scientists is two-fold: not enough young girls choose subjects like physics or advanced math, and then there are systematic, institution bias within the scientific community. On the high school front, the Institute of Physics do a great job with their Improving Gender Balance program. There are heaps of barriers to diversity and inclusion in academia, including bias in peer-review, bias in the allocation of grant funding and large-scale sexual harassment.

Academia needs to be more supportive of early career researchers who are thinking of starting a family or look after elderly parents, we need more rules written to help the victims of sexual harassment and bullying and we need people to work harder to make sure we consider diversity when we advertise positions or invite people to give seminars. We also need people in charge to recognize the importance of networks and mentoring for underrepresented communities – especially those who might not otherwise put themselves forward. I also think academia needs to become less elitist and remember how lucky we all are to do jobs that inspire us and work with people who are exciting. If people remembered what an honor it was to be a practicing scientist they might behave better.

If we don’t have diverse groups of people doing science, we’ll do worse science. We’ll make fewer discoveries, we’ll have less impact on the catastrophic mess we’ve left the climate in, and people will die because of the lack of diversity in the teams creating medicines and delivering healthcare.

LL: What would your message be to those who are unsure whether to pursue a career in science?

Do it! Come and hang out with me at Imperial College London. We have all the fun. 

Jessica Wade was speaking to Laura Elizabeth Lansdowne, Science Writer for Technology Networks.