Why we need women leading in science

We know there is a gender gap in STEM. 35% of STEM students are women, yet we represent only 15% of STEM leaders and managers.  

Young children of all genders show equal interest in science, yet by age 10 when asked to draw a picture of a scientist, young girls are twice as likely to draw a man as a woman. The stereotyping of science as a boys’ interest has led to young girls interested in science feeling lonely and misunderstood, even now when there is much discussion trying to dispel this notion. Today, many of my fellow undergraduates can recall being the only one, or one of a couple female students in their A-level physics classes.  

As an underrepresented STEM student across the board, seeking representation has become a source of both comfort and inspiration to my drive to pursue science as a career. Only 4% of scientists are female and disabled. Similarly, 4% are female and from an ethnic minority so I know it’s highly unlikely I’ll find representation of my whole self, a female, LGBTQ+, disabled scientist, in my field. But the women whose leadership I’ve experienced throughout my education are a source of confidence to back my ambition. 

Despite this discussion of representation, which seems to be the most popular reason cited for working towards having more female leaders, this is far from the only advantage. The conversation should not be just about what opportunities science can provide for women, but what women can provide for science.  

A popular discussion now is the idea of diversity of thought. Increasing the diversity of scientists serves to increase the diversity of ideas and perspectives they bring to the table. While the benefit of this in social sciences and fields such as medicine is more transparent, diversity of thought does not apply only to the object of study but to the process of research itself. The thought processes of humans are shaped by both innate factors and their experiences, increasing women in science serves to increase the range of thought processes of scientists working on key problems. There is a positive correlation between the proportion of women in a field and the rate of expansion of knowledge, due to new ideas, perspectives, and creativity. Female leaders can facilitate this knowledge expansion by providing new ways to structure their teams and to value the diversity of input within them. 

Female scientists are more likely to adopt a collaborative approach to leadership, involving team members of all levels in idea generation, decision making, research and publications, providing more opportunities to early career scientists in their networks. Groups led by someone valuing collaboration and cooperation experience less tensions arising from power imbalance and seeking control, stressors to group productivity.  

In a field such as climate sciences, collaboration is paramount to progress and ultimately to safeguarding the future of our population. Solving a global crisis requires global solutions, incorporating input and perspectives from and solutions for the diversity of people across the world. A tendency to form collaborative leadership styles puts women at the forefront of bringing the change to science needed to handle this crisis.  

Women are more likely than men to be emotionally expressive in their leadership. While emotionality is often perceived as a flaw, there are many benefits to the contrary. Leaders who are expressive in their emotions are more likely to provide inspiration to those they lead, and to facilitate enthusiasm, engagement, and trust in their spaces. And in fields such as medicine and climate change where the implications of science can invoke a whole range of emotions, leaving your emotions behind creates distance from the impact of work undertaken. Being emotionally expressive in leadership also contributes to greater academic wellbeing, as openness allows leaders to express their compassion, building trust for those around them.  

Personally, without the impact of some open, expressive and emotional teachers and lecturers in my education, I would have been unable to picture myself, a passionate, expressive, creative and all-round emotional person as a scientist in a field I’d only seen represented through the image of stoic men.  

Women in roles in academic science leadership in the UK are more likely than their male counterparts to engage with equality, diversity, and inclusivity (EDI) work alongside research. Women working in EDI roles do not only advocate for gender equality in STEM, but for increasing access to science for people from all underrepresented groups regardless of their personal background. Supporting progress of women towards leadership in science will not only provide all the benefits already discussed, but further drive progress towards true diversity in STEM, for which each underrepresented group included will provide their own source of strengths to the field.  

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Laura Taylor

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January 2022
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