Women in Tech

Cambridge festival champions women's advancement in STEM

7th November 2023
Sheryl Miles

Murray Edwards College, University of Cambridge, became the nexus of a vibrant celebration of women's achievements in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) on the 26th and 27th of October.

The Women in STEM Festival, warmly referred to as a beacon of hope and awareness, not only highlighted women's contributions to science but also delved deeply into the challenges that remain entrenched in the sector.

Sheryl Miles, Associate Editor at Electronic Specifier, mingled with an eclectic mix of students, academics, and industry professionals. They were united by a common goal: to amplify the discourse around women's representation in STEM and to catalyse change in a historically male-dominated arena.

The festival's itinerary was packed with enlightening discussions, led by trailblazers from various disciplines within STEM. The spectrum of topics was broad, with sessions ranging from panel discussions to personal narratives that painted a vivid picture of the landscape for women in these critical fields.

A standout moment was the joint talk by Professors Deborah Prentice and Irene Tracey, Vice Chancellors of Cambridge and Oxford respectively. Their partnership on stage at the Paula Browne House conference centre was emblematic of the collaborative spirit needed to tackle gender disparity in STEM. Their dialogue resonated with the audience, underscoring the importance of institutional support for women's advancement in academia and industry.

The festival also served as a platform for introspection and celebration. Three esteemed female professors of astrophysics, all alumnae of the college, shared their journeys in a field where women's achievements have often been overshadowed. Professor Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell's account of her pioneering work on pulsars — and the subsequent Nobel Prize that eluded her and was instead given to a male colleage — was a poignant reminder of the biases that have historically plagued STEM fields. However, she caused a ripple of laughter among the spectators, saying: “What no one tells you is that, if you win the Nobel Prize, you’ll never win another award in your career – because it’s so recognised, how can you top it. But if you don’t win the Nobel Prize, you win every other award there is.”

Alongside her, Professor Katherine Blundell's exploration of galaxies and Professor Hiranya Peiris's insights into the cosmos captivated the audience with tales of the universe that often remain untold in mainstream narratives.

Dame Athene Donald spoke about why we need more women in science, and the importance that accurate representation is to children as young as three years old. She also highlighted the subtle biases that exist everywhere – even on questionnaires.

“Everyone has a responsibility to call out bad behaviour. It’s important to have male or females who support you through difficult times,” Donald said.

Dorothy Byrne, President of Murray Edwards College, in conversation with Chi Onwurah, Labour's Shadow Science Minister, focused on tangible policies and strategies aimed at fostering diversity within STEM. They discussed the necessity of inclusive education policies and support structures to encourage women to pursue careers in these sectors.

The discussions extended beyond individual experiences, confronting the systemic barriers that continue to impede women's progress in STEM. A concerning statistic was the disparity in venture capital funding, with companies led by women receiving significantly less investment compared to those led by men. This financial gap was acknowledged as a substantial hurdle that requires strategic intervention.

Statistics unveiled at the festival shed light on the gender divide within UK universities, highlighting the underrepresentation of women in engineering, technology, and computing. Mathematics saw a slightly higher, yet still inadequate, percentage of female academics.

Medical fields, though seeing a higher graduation rate of women, still display a stark imbalance at the professorship level, particularly in Clinical Medicine and Anatomy and Physiology. These figures were discussed not as mere numbers but as a call to action, emphasising the need for concerted efforts to bridge the gender gap.

Byrne's closing remarks stressed the importance of nurturing interest in STEM from a young age, advocating for a robust support system that empowers girls to envision a future in these fields. While acknowledging the initiatives undertaken by Cambridge and other institutions to bolster this engagement, she also pointed out the glacial pace of change, suggesting that achieving gender parity could take decades.

The festival concluded with a forward-looking sentiment, urging participants to not only reflect on the discussions but also to be proactive in creating a more inclusive STEM environment. It called upon educators, policymakers, and industry leaders to rise to the challenge, affirming that balancing the scales is not just a moral imperative but also a catalyst for innovation and economic progress.

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