IWD2021 Q&A: Shifting perceptions of women in STEM

3 min read

women in STEMTo mark International Women’s Day (IWD2021) Elizabeth Swan, patent attorney in the Life Science and Chemistry group at Withers & Rogers, shares her insight into the future of women in STEM.  

Why do you believe it is important for women to be involved in STEM?

Women have so much to offer in all aspects of life, including STEM. As half of the world’s population is female, it is vital that women take an active role in innovation and design. In the past this hasn’t been the case, leading to many things being designed by men, predominantly with men in mind, and therefore not working optimally for women. This even includes medicines and vital safety equipment such as seat belts. Involving women in STEM careers will help to close these gaps and promote gender equality.

What more can be done to encourage women to get involved in STEM?

Reaching girls at an early age is vital. The stereotypes that boys become engineers and professors, and girls become teachers and carers, are still present. Of course, there isn’t one career choice that’s superior to the other, but girls and boys shouldn’t feel that certain career paths aren’t open to them, simply because of their gender.

INWED20: The power of engagement

Exposing girls to female STEM role models is a great way to show them that they too could follow a career in science or engineering. Recent events have proved that science can make a huge impact on the world, and that women are already playing a major role. The COVID crisis, particularly, has made the role of science in society more visible than ever before.

A perfect example is Professor Sarah Gilbert, a key figure behind the hugely successful Oxford/Astra Zeneca vaccine, and a shining role model for STEM students of the future. Like her, young people should be encouraged to explore their interests and skills, finding their own career direction rather than being steered towards the norm.

For those in the intellectual property industry like myself, diversity organisations, such as IP Inclusive, have an important role to play in demonstrating the range of STEM careers open to young people, regardless of gender. Knowing that there is a support network out there can remove any worries an individual might have about feeling alone or outnumbered.

Why do you think there are still fewer women than men in STEM?

Physical barriers have been removed, but a certain perception remains that is hard to break down. Even now, only 35 percent of STEM students in higher education are women, with just 19 percent taking up engineering or computer science.

Clearly there is still a long way to go when it comes to equal representation, even if things have improved. Perception is the real barrier to women entering into the world of STEM, with history telling us that it is not the right place for us. However, the more role models that emerge, the easier it will become for women to push past any doubts – conscious or subconscious – that they may have about choosing a STEM career.

What has been your own experience as a woman in STEM?

I’ve been keen on science from an early age, and was lucky to have the support at school and home to feel confident to choose to study chemistry at university. I also feel very lucky to have trained as a patent attorney within the IP profession, and don’t believe that I have faced any discrimination at work on the grounds of my gender. However, it is clear that underrepresentation of women in the IP industry remains an issue, especially at a senior level.

I’ve also noticed that women entering the world of IP tend to focus on protecting innovations in the fields of life sciences and chemistry, like me. By contrast, patent attorneys focused on engineering are mainly male. This may be because engineering is seen as a more ‘physical’ field – more evidence of stereotypes. That being said, I’m proud that we have a number of female trainees in Withers & Rogers’ Advanced Engineering Group.

Image by RAEng_Publications from Pixabay

What opportunities does STEM present for women?

STEM can lead to many varied careers. For example, becoming a patent attorney doesn’t tend to cross people’s minds when they think of a STEM career, but scientific knowledge and understanding is a critical part of the job and is something I apply every day when advising clients about how to protect their innovations.

Science and engineering can also do incredible things in fields such as public health or climate change, which makes it a worthwhile and attractive career path for many young people.

With science so much a feature of the news right now, I’m hopeful that more young women will spot an opportunity to make a difference in the world and take the leap into a STEM career.

Do you have any words of wisdom for women looking to get involved in STEM?

Go for it! STEM is not only a diverse and fascinating area to work in, but it’s also essentially important for many areas of life, from helping to end a global pandemic, to finding solutions for climate change. Find a path that suits your interests and don’t be afraid to follow it. As well as getting started on a great career, you could inspire others to follow in your footsteps and make a positive difference to the world.

Elizabeth Swan, patent attorney in the Life Science and Chemistry group at European intellectual property firm, Withers & Rogers