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Inspiring the next generation of women and girls in science

To mark International Day of Women and Girls in Science, we take a look at some of the ways we are helping to highlight a few of the many remarkable female scientists, explore the continuing gender gap in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) and inspire the next generation of women in the field.

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Women pioneers of science

Throughout history, women have been behind many of the world’s most important scientific discoveries and advances.  

Our UK exam board, OCR, has been working to raise awareness of these pioneers in the classroom to inspire teachers and students.

They have created a series of posters showcasing pioneers in chemistry, biology and physics, including:

  • Flossie Wong-Staal who was named the top female scientist of the 1980s. Wong-Staal was co-credited for the discovery of HIV. She was the first to clone HIV and map its genes, and found that HIV depleted the immune system’s T cells  
  • Katherine Johnson was an American space scientist and mathematician whose calculations of orbital mechanics were vital to the success of the Apollo moon landing. She was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom 
  • Mary-Claire King who has carried out ground-breaking work in genetics. She demonstrated the close link between chimpanzees and humans, discovered the breast cancer gene, BRAC1, and uses mitochondrial DNA to help identify missing people 

In a recent blog for teachers, OCR’s science subject advisors shone a spotlight on the work and lives of six black British pioneers in STEM, including Mary Seacole and Maggie Aderin-Pocock.

  • Mary Seacole was a British-Jamaican nurse whose reputation during and after the Crimean War rivalled Florence Nightingale’s. During the war, Mary asked the British War Office to send her as an army nurse to the Crimea. She was refused but did not let this stop her. Mary funded her own trip and set up a hotel to treat soldiers. She was also often found to be tending to soldiers on the frontline while under fire 
  • Maggie Aderin-Pocock is a British space scientist and science educator born to Nigerian parents. Her career has included project managing the development of hand-held instruments to detect landmines, developing a high-resolution spectrograph for the Gemini telescope and being the lead scientist at Astrium, managing observation instruments on a satellite which measured wind speeds to help investigate climate change 

In another initiative to encourage and inspire young people to explore the world of science, our education publishing team interviewed two female scientists about their work at the University of Cambridge. 

  • Demelza Wright from the Department of Physics shared information about her work to turn the greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide (CO2), back into fuel, as well as her own personal story about why she became a scientist 
  • Taylor Uekert from the Department of Chemistry described her work on turning plastic waste into fuel with sunlight in order to address two global challenges – waste alleviation and renewable fuel generation. In her interview, Taylor explained how science allows you “…not just to understand the physics, biology and chemistry of how the world works, but also to use that understanding to change and improve how we interact with the world.” 

From wars to climate change, females in STEM have been, and continue to be, key in addressing the past, present and emerging challenges the world faces.  

Building a sustainable future for all, means leaving no one behind. Women and girls are critical to finding solutions to the biggest challenges we face today and must be heard, valued and celebrated throughout society to reflect their perspectives and choices for their future and that of the advancement of humanity. 

UN Women 

Women in STEM and the pandemic 

The global pandemic of the past two years has shown the importance of having a global workforce of experts working in STEM fields.  

As Covid-19 has continued to spread, we have depended on those experts to treat people falling ill from the virus; to map its spread; analyse how it affects individuals of different ages and ethnicities; develop vaccines and to monitor new variants.

Study support resource, BBC Bitesize, and UN Women have both produced articles highlighting some of the women in STEM who have made a difference in fighting against the coronavirus pandemic. 

  • Rosalind Franklin is known for her work on molecular structures which has been fundamental to the understanding of DNA. But she also researched viruses and saw that they have a similar (yet single-stranded) structure called RNA, which makes up their genetic code. Today, it is RNA that scientists look for when testing for coronavirus cases 

  • Kizzmekia Corbett is co-lead of a team that developed the American Moderna vaccine. A viral immunologist and research fellow who has been leading a team researching various coronaviruses for five years, she  hopes her work will  inspire future generations of girls of colour in science, who can see themselves in her success 

  • Ramida “Jennie” Juengpaisal is a young woman in Thailand who worked to create a national Covid-19 tracker that pulls together all available information about the virus and helped to stop the proliferation of misinformation as Covid-19 first began to spread. Jennie says: “There is a lot of women working in the tech industry, but they don't have platforms to show their potential. Despite this, women and girls are pushing the boundaries every day.”

Encouraging women in STEM education

For years a science gender gap has persisted all over the world. Despite great progress towards increasing female participation in higher education, women still remain under-represented in STEM fields. Data shows that only 35 per cent of STEM students in higher education globally and less than 30 per cent of the world’s researchers are women.  

Helping to support and encourage more women to study STEM courses and take up careers in STEM is crucial if this disparity is to be addressed. To achieve this, we must ensure girls are encouraged throughout their lives and, particularly, at an age when they are starting to make choices about their future career paths.  

Last year, our international exam board, Cambridge Assessment International Education, released data reinforcing the view that the run-up to post-16 education is a vital moment to encourage new generations of female scientists, engineers, programmers and mathematicians.  

The exam board has found that while male and female students perform equally during Cambridge IGCSEs, there remains a disconnect between what they choose to study post-16. Globally, nearly two thirds of male and female students take Cambridge International’s STEM courses at Cambridge IGCSE. Yet, at A Level, when many have the choice of which three or four subjects they want to focus their studies on, there is quite a drop in the number of STEM subject entries by women. The situation varies country to country, but the international outlook shows there is still a way to go before young women pursue STEM A Levels in equal numbers to young men.  

Some of the ways Cambridge International suggests we can encourage more girls to choose STEM subjects include recognising and rewarding young scientists; encouraging work experience placements in STEM fields; promoting the work of successful women scientists and mathematicians; and by ensuring STEM qualifications remain an interesting, relevant and attractive choice for all students regardless of their gender. 

Encouragingly, it does seem that female representation is gradually improving year-on-year, pointing to a brighter future for the global workforce.  

In the UK, in higher education the number of women accepted onto full-time STEM undergraduate courses increased by 50.1 per cent between 2011 and 2020. At A Level, there was a 31 per cent increase in entries from young women to STEM subjects between 2010 and 2019. An FFT Education Datalab blog looking at the UK’s A Level results in 2021 notes that there are “promising indications for gender balance in STEM subjects” and, although some subjects “still have a very low percentage of girls”, overall numbers do seem to be slowly increasing.

Jill Duffy, chief executive of OCR, has been vocal in celebrating the increase in girls taking A Level Sciences and the need to keep encouraging girls to overcome stereotypes. Since Jill joined OCR, the board has highlighted the profile of notable female scientists in history in its resource materials and focused on gender in science at forums and in podcasts. Jill has also been key to OCR’s commitment to creating more diverse and inclusive qualifications and specifications for our students.  

Jill said: "It’s great to see more girls taking A Level Sciences every year. I’m the parent of two daughters who are successful scientists and I’m committed to making studying science as accessible and relevant as possible for all young women. It will be interesting to see if Covid drives even more female students to take science at A Level in the next few years as a route into careers in health and research for example. In the meantime, we’re continuing to work to overcome stereotypes with a new blog out next month celebrating the achievements of more women in science and how they contributed to the science in our A Levels."

Female representation in STEM roles 

When young women see people like them achieving success in STEM fields, they are more likely to aspire to careers in STEM, to choose STEM throughout their educational journey and overcome damaging stereotypes and anxieties. Representation shows women that following their strengths and passions will lead to success.

Around the world, teachers and parents have always been the most immediate role models, advocates and sources of encouragement to young people who may not have considered following a STEM path previously. To help these important early-stage role models, there has been a push from businesses in recent years to hire more women and promote diverse female representation in science in global media and television programmes.

In the UK, the WISE campaign has been working in partnership with businesses, schools, young people and their parents to inspire girls and women to study and build careers in STEM, and has produced useful resources on the business case for gender diversity.

In our own organisation, we serve customers and represent colleagues all over the world, and believe equality, diversity, inclusion and belonging in all their forms, are essential to our future success.

As well as a strong commitment to creating more diverse and inclusive qualifications and specification for our learners, we are also committed to playing an active role in encouraging diversity in our publishing. Both in the content we produce and in the editors and authors we work with. This includes female representation in our academic publishing.

Our Head of STM (Science, Technology & Medicine) Open Access Publishing for Cambridge University Press, Fiona Hutton, started her own career as a research scientist. Fiona has a degree in Molecular Biology, a PhD in Cancer Research, and conducted a post-doctoral degree in a Virology lab, working in labs in both the UK and US. She then became professional Editor of a leading review journal in biochemistry, and has since worked in various publishing positions, all strongly focused on scientific research communication.

“At the Press, we recognise that there is a representation problem at higher levels of academic research and are committed to ensuring equal representation of female researchers as editors of our scientific journals or as members of our editorial boards. We do this proactively when setting up and planning new publication launches, and regularly work to address any imbalances within our existing portfolio of publications. However, we recognise that we need to expand this work to ensure that we see diversity, equity and inclusion in the authors that publish with us and are conducting a survey to understand author demographics so that we can proactively address ways to make our publishing more inclusive,” says Fiona.


Who are your female role models in STEM? Let us know on social media @CambPressAssess and show your support for efforts to achieve full and equal access to and participation in science for women and girls this International Day of Women and Girls in Science using #WomenInScience.


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