International Women's Day: Britain's battle to recruit more female scientists

Rob Waugh
In certain fields of science, the situation is still grim - only 8% of physics professors are female, and women still make up only 5% of the Fellows of the Royal Society.


Prof Pratibha Gai

“When I graduated from Cambridge in physics three decades ago, I was the only woman in my class,” says Professor Pratibha Gai, this year's European winner of the Women in Science award.

“I then became the only senior materials scientist in the UK.

“The situation for women now is much better - but there is still a lack of encouragement for women.”

In certain fields of science, the situation is still grim - only 8% of physics professors are female, and women still make up only 5% of the Fellows of the Royal Society.

Overall, men are six times more likely than women to work in science, technology and engineering in the UK - just 13% of the workforce is female.

In subjects such as biosciences, 80% of undergraduates are female - but just 20% of professors.










[Related: International Women's Day - women in parliament]



More than a century has passed since Marie Curie became the first woman to win the Nobel Prize - albeit grudgingly, as the committee intended to award her husband instead - and only 43 women have won either the Nobel prize for Physics or for Chemistry.

“Over my career, there has been a huge improvement,” says Gai, who won the L’Oreal/UNESCO Women in Science award in 2012.

“But women need to be encouraged in the early stages - at school. Women need to be told about role models.”

Gai was honoured for her invention of a new type of microscope which can observe chemical reactions at the atomic scale.

Her breakthrough invention is being used to develop new forms of antibiotics and new, environmentally friendly biofuels.

“Even at A-level, the number of girls studying physics is around 20-22% of the total” says Denise Eaton of Women in Science, Engineering and Technology.

WISE works with universities, students and private enterprise to encourage more women to pursue scientific careers.













[ Related: International Women's Day]


“In psychology, 80% of undergraduates are female, and only 20% of professors," says Eaton.

"Women face difficulty related to career breaks and flexible working. If you’re on a research project, and you want to take maternity leave, how do the funders deal with that?"

“I think a lot of it is unconscious - but there are problems there to be tackled."