UoL held a talk on Tuesday evening entitled ‘Women in Science’ as part of a lecture series on Science and Society.

Professor Lesley Yellowlees MBE spoke at the Victoria Gallery and Museum to an enthusiastic and mixed audience, with a range of ages and a fairly even gender balance. The talk focused on the underrepresentation of women in high academic roles within all disciplines of science. Yellowlees showed the extent of this difference, suggested reasons there could be for this, and addressed why  exactly the issue is important.

Yellowlees holds a number of prestigious roles, as well as being the Vice Principle and Head of the College of Science at the University of Edinburgh and having received an MBE for her services to science, she is the President of the Royal Society of Chemistry, a position never previously held by a woman in its 172 year history. As a woman in such an influential role, she strives to address the gender imbalance and make the field of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) more accessible to females.

She began the talk by presenting several graphs and statistics which were designed to shock and display the stark difference between numbers of men and women who hold high level scientific positions.  She showed that although the representation of female students is good within science subjects early on, there is a severe drop off towards higher education. The leaky pipeline, which Yellowlees jokingly described as “more like a colander” begins after students have done their A levels, where the intake is around 50% female across all sciences. The balance at undergraduate level is not far from even either, but beyond that the number of women severely drops off, with a woeful 8% of chemistry professors being female.

An important question is why does this matter, and what’s wrong with having a male dominated subject area? Yellowlees explains that the skills of such a large proportion are lost and that doubling female contribution to the skill base would generate an extra £170 million per year across the country. With as much as 73% of female STEM graduates leaving their field of study to work in sectors other than the one they are qualified in, compared to only 48% of male graduates who do the same, Yellowlees claims it is a “waste” to lose this volume of people who are trained in STEM.

She finished on a positive and inspirational note, with some suggestions for how the issue could be dealt within and outside the workplace. These included childcare facilities and greater flexibility in workplaces, which she observed are “things that would benefit men too, but women would benefit disproportionately well”.

The lecture series aims to explore the relationship between science and society. There will be two more lectures entitled ‘Why should the UK invest in fundamental discoveries such as the Higgs particle?’ and ‘High throughput discovery of functional organic materials’. More information can be found on the UoL website at http://www.liv.ac.uk/events/science-and-society/.