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Girls in STEM: The Changing Landscape Post-COVID-19

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As we emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been much talk about the opportunity to “build back better” and develop a greener, fairer, and more equal society and economy. But what does this mean for girls in STEM?

The pandemic has highlighted the vital role of UK science and innovation, with scientists including epidemiologists, immunologists, and virologists the new superheroes of our day. As politicians lean on “the science” and “data, not dates”, scientists and their research achievements have become a daily part of our news bulletins. One upside of this has been the increased public visibility of a number of highly qualified women in STEM leadership roles. The Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine was developed in record time by a team of researchers at the University of Oxford led by Professor Sarah Gilbert, building on her 25 years of experience developing vaccines against malaria, influenza, and emerging viral pathogens. Professor Sarah Gilbert was recently awarded the prestigious RSA Albert Medal for her services to collaborative innovation for the common good. She is the 156th recipient of this medal, which has been awarded since 1864, but only the 15th woman; to date, women account for less than 10% of awardees.

At the same time, COVID-19 is widening existing gender inequalities. Women have borne the brunt of extra childcare responsibilities during the extended periods of home schooling. While home working increases flexibility, women – who were already responsible for three quarters of unpaid work globally  – are now doing even more of the domestic chores and family care. Though the presence of female STEM leaders plays a vital role in showing girls that they can follow STEM careers, how does this fit within the day-to-day reality that children see at home?

Pre-COVID-19, women made up 24% of the STEM workforce in the UK – this proportion has been projected to reach a critical mass of 30% by 2030 (WISE, 2019). Just over a year since the first UK COVID-19 lockdown began, I wonder what the long-term impact of COVID-19 will be for girls in STEM and what the STEM landscape will look like in 10 or even 20 years’ time. Parents and teachers can build on the current visibility of female STEM leaders in the media to start discussions with children in the home and in the classroom, showing girls that STEM careers can be their future. We are all familiar with the handful of female scientists that history has immortalised; a quick search of ‘female scientists’ typically brings Marie Cure to the fore. But, brilliant scientist though she was, how effective can she be as a role model for a girl in primary school today? Let’s take this opportunity to update our lists of famous female scientists and show our girls they can be the STEM superheroes of tomorrow.

Parents and teachers can build on the current visibility of female STEM leaders in the media to start discussions with children in the home and in the classroom, showing girls that STEM careers can be their future. We are all familiar with the handful of female scientists that history has immortalised; a quick search of ‘female scientists’ typically brings Marie Cure to the fore. But, brilliant scientist though she was, how effective can she be as a role model for a girl in primary school today? Let’s take this opportunity to update our lists of famous female scientists and show our girls they can be the STEM superheroes of tomorrow.

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