Getting women and girls into science

Talat Yaqoob is the Director of Equate Scotland, the national expert on women in STEM and is the chair and co-founder of Women 5050 the national campaign to increase the number of women in politics and on public boards. She has a background in campaigning, public affairs and training and development.

Getting women and girls into STEM, into sport, into media and into politics has been an economic and social motivation across the world for a number of years, and whilst progress is being made, the culture and attitudes towards women leaders in the field remains stubbornly stereotypical.

Once was the attitude that women did not belong in leadership positions, whilst we have come a long way from this (well, some way) the conversation around women and their leadership is still stuck in a narrow, stereotyped prism. We spend much of our time talking about how women differ as leaders from men and how businesses, politics or academia is improved by “women’s leadership”. But what is women’s leadership? Is it so different? Is that helpful as a way to accelerate women’s existence at the top of male dominated professions?

Much like many conversations around women’s equality the responses are often contradictory. There is a constant back and forth on women at the top and unhelpful discourse goes one of two ways:

  1. Leadership is masculine and you’re in a male dominated environment therefore women need to ensure they fit the mould of leadership to make it at the top. This is the “we really wanted a man but we have to be diverse” approach.
  2. Women bring a special type of leadership, focused on team building, risk-aversion and consensus. This is why we need more women leaders. This is the “Don’t ruffle any feathers and make nice” approach.

I reject both, mainly because I am somewhere in the middle. Building up teams and creating a good working environment is very important to me, but equally important is getting the job done, being strategic and not taking no for an answer. I would argue that not just most women, but most people are somewhere in the middle. These narrow prisms do all genders a disservice and in fact do our economy a disservice by hiring people pretending to be someone else.

A dangerous woman for me, is one that defines her type of leadership rather than having her leadership defined for her by a system obsessed with maintaining stereotypes. This in fact audacious leadership too, as for many rejecting how a woman in a position of power should be and accepting who we are and the leaders we want to be within, even in 2017, takes a certain audacity.

Let’s take Hillary Clinton; apparently she did not have the stamina to be a presidential candidate yet equally was too strong, aggressive and wasn’t warm. Which is it going to be? Why is it that no matter what the field women find themselves leading, they are being held to an unobtainable and quite frankly confused standard? For Hillary Clinton her choices in her leadership and her bid to be one of the most powerful leaders in the world was both audacious and dangerous on multiple levels.

Conversations around leadership are fixated on traditional masculinity and femininity and it is getting in the way of true progress. Whether in STEM, in politics or in the media, we seem to want to make women into leaders which fit traditional leadership rather than embrace the diversity in the types of leadership that 51% of the population has to offer. When was the last time you heard someone ask “what will men’s leadership bring to x sector?” We don’t and we shouldn’t because that’s the wrong question, the question should be “how will diversity make us stronger?”

The Davis Review working to get more women onto private boards tells us that increasing the number of women at the top is good for productivity, profitability and reputation. But this isn’t because women come into the role and start fluffing up cushions, asking people how they are and baking cookies – these are women with intellect and ambition. The reason it improves business outcomes, is because diversity is good for business, diversity makes for more realistic decision making and people want to see society fully reflected at the top. Let’s not forget that women exist in multiple diversities; we are BME, LGBT, disabled, immigrant, differ in age and experiences.

Put the words “women and leadership” into Google and you will have a countless number of conferences, workshops and events you can go to which aim to improve women’s confidence, leadership skills and assertiveness. These development opportunities are important, especially as the majority of women will say that they lack confidence and will identify a need for these types of training events. We rightly, need to respond to what women are looking for in terms of support. However, these opportunities run the risk of creating a self-fulfilling prophecy if there is not space to consider how the external creates the existence of the internal lack of confidence and unease in women. We need to identify that the issue lies not within women but within a system dominated by men, creating the perception that they, as women, may not belong. At Equate Scotland, we make sure when we discuss women’s leadership we have a conversation about the system it exists in.

The debates in politics and media are changing, we are more likely to hear a more diverse appreciation of the talent women bring to leadership positions. However in STEM, particularly for girls, we need to put more effort into how we engage them whilst rejecting the idea that their interests are particularly feminine.

Walk down a toy aisle and you will find very few toys in the unnecessarily named “girls section” that have much to do with science. The few that are there seem to focus on nonsense stereotypes of what will spark interest in science in a girl; perfume making or “geek chic” dolls. Perhaps the worst offender is Lego who decided that girls will be interested in construction if they have pink blocks designed to build beach houses.

Creativity, science, construction and imagination should not be gendered terms and if we want to see any radical increase in the number of girls and women pursuing STEM, we would do well to remember that.

Similarly, leadership does not come with a gender. It’s time to reject the idea of a special form of “women’s leadership” and just open the doors of opportunity to all women; the strong ones, the kind ones, the aggressive ones, the emotional ones and all of the ones in between.

Equate Scotland is leading a debate on this very issue during the Audacious Women festival and we are very excited that Dr Raeanne Miller from the Scottish Association of Marine Science will be joining us to talk about her recent all women expedition to Antarctica and smashing stereotypes of leadership and of science!

Register for the event on 20 February here: