STEM Women at Leeds

In light of celebrations for International Women’s Day on the 8th March, when the phenomenal achievements made by women in the fields of Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) are ever so briefly recognised and praise is rightfully awarded, it broaches the question of how seriously women today are being encouraged to pursue STEM subjects or potentially more importantly, how are women currently in STEM being supported and represented? 

Looking close to home, women in STEM researching at the University of Leeds are paving the way to new futures with their groundbreaking research. For example, Dr Sunjie Ye is a physicist whose innovative work focuses on developing gold nanoparticles for use in medical devices. Newly appointed as a University Academic Fellow last year, Dr Anna Hogg’s work focuses on using satellite data to observe and assess polar regions which is vital in climate change research.

Furthermore, plant biologist Dr Yoselin Benitez-Alfonso has led pioneering research which has helped aid the development of strategies to improve agricultural sustainability. 

With rigorous searching of the University of Leeds‘ website, and endless googling, eventually pages on Women in STEM under the Faculty of Engineering and Physical Sciences will come up. The University praises itself on its contributions to and support of women in STEM, and this is supposedly reflected in the amount of female academics and students who are a part of this faculty.

Whilst the number of female members of staff may be rising, using the University‘s online staff directories for each faculty, it appears that the ratio is still significantly unequal. In the faculty of Engineering and Physical Sciences, just 35 professors  (including research and associate professors) are women, compared to 202 men; in other words, roughly 15% of the staff in these positions are women. The Faculty of Biological Sciences is higher, with 30% of professors being women; the staff directory listed 18 women, compared to 44 men.

It must be noted the University received an award from Athena SWAN Charter, a national body which promotes equality in the higher education sector, and they have both set up and are a part of a great deal of organisations which support women in STEM, including the Women at Leeds Network (WaLN), Women of Achievement awards and the Student Women’s Engineering Society.

These differences between STEM faculties is mirrored in the number of students currently studying different STEM subjects. There are increasing numbers of women choosing to study STEM subjects but the number of those studying Biology is substantially higher than women studying Engineering or Maths for example.

This poses the question of what more can the University do? In aid of International Women’s Day the School of Food Science and Nutrition are holding their annual event to discuss and present women’s involvement and progression within STEM careers, with keynote speakers currently undertaking research and teaching at the University of Leeds. The event is free and will be held on the 6th March at the University, details of which are available online. However, it’s arguable that this conversation needs to happen more than once a year. With what few advertisements there are for free STEM events, especially those discussing women’s careers in the fields, we should be asking if Universities should be more driven and dynamic with regards to raising awareness of potential careers in STEM for everyone. 

A University of Leeds spokesperson said:

“We believe every student deserves to fulfil their potential. Informed by our excellent employer and alumni networks, the Student Careers Centre promotes work placements and career opportunities to all students, and our employability teams based in faculties organise targeted events and support individuals throughout the academic year.”

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