We need more girls in STEM careers!

STEM – science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

This weekend we finally had our outreach event at Saga University to encourage high school girls to do science at university. We had both school girls and parents, as it is very important for them to understand what science careers are all about, so that they can support and encourage their daughters. It was a fun and informative morning that started with an introduction from Kaori Miyachi (gender equality officer), followed by a presentation by Noriko Ryuda about her research in soil microbiology and what it is like to be a postdoctoral researcher in Japan. After that, I spoke a little bit about research in Europe, women in science throughout History and my current research in bioprinting, tissue engineering and regenerative medicine. The morning finished with fun, hands-on activities. All participants enjoyed extracting DNA from strawberry and roll it up like spaghetti, as well as exploring some bacteria and fungi that are part of our everyday life (such as yeast in bread and bacteria in yoghurt).

When we think about famous women in science, the first name that comes to mind is usually Marie Curie. However, throughout History there have been many others who made a name for themselves and have contributed enormously to their field. Some, but not all, were properly acknowledged and even won awards, including Nobel prizes. Smithsonian Mag have put together a list of ten historic female scientists you should know about. If you are interested, you can read more here. Many more could be added, but this is a good list to start with.

Today things are a bit better, but we’re still not quite there in terms of numbers or salary. Forbes magazine have recently published a list of the twenty best paying jobs for women in 2015 (in America). You can have a look here. In some cases, the percentage of women is shockingly low, in others it’s about 50%. Interestingly, for specific areas, the fewer women seem to be earning more than men doing the same job! These are only a few exceptions, though, not the norm.

In Japan, the gender gap is even wider. Women going to University to study STEM is still seen with prejudice and they have no incentive at all, as girls studying science are labelled as “not cute” (it is very important to be cute in Japan!) and therefore they fear they will not have friends or find a husband. Yes, it is 2016 (or 28 of the Heisei era)! Even those who do attend University will not volunteer that they are doing chemistry, etc., unless directly asked about it. The Japanese government is finally taking measures to change this trend, such as creating nurseries at universities, increasing technical support in labs or promoting outreach events where school girls get to meet women who work as scientists or engineers. Still early days, but it’s definitely a step forward. Recently, a new term was introduced to try and make it trendier and more acceptable – Rikejo – which roughly means women in science. Tokyo Tech have a nice summary of Japanese women who were pioneers in science. You can read it here.

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