Soapbox Science: shouting for women in STEMM

Dr Joanne Godwin, a postdoc in BIO, shares her experience as a speaker for this unique science communication initiative, and her reasons for getting involved.

“If a flour beetle egg was the size of a rugby ball, how long would a sperm cell be?”*

 Standing on a wooden box in the middle of a busy shopping district, I heard myself ask this question out loud to a group of unsuspecting shoppers, while a smaller (nervous) voice in the back of my head was wondering how I had got myself into this situation …

This summer, I was lucky enough to be a speaker at one of the brilliant Soapbox Science events taking place across the UK and internationally. This science communication initiative was set up to tackle the gender imbalance in STEMM (science, technology, engineering, maths and medicine) subjects by creating an opportunity for women to be more visible. The format is a simple one: stand on a box in a busy public space, maybe with a couple of carefully considered props, and shout (mostly metaphorically, but sometimes literally) about your research!

Showcasing women and their research

When I applied to be a Soapbox speaker, I wrote that I thought women are often less likely to promote themselves or recognise their own achievements. This is certainly something I find difficult, and by getting involved I wanted to prove to myself that I deserved to stand up alongside women who’d inspired.

So I was thrilled to be chosen, but then the nerves kicked in … How was I going to explain my research, and would anyone want to take a break from their shopping to listen?

Preparing for Soapbox Science really made me reflect and remind myself why I do what I do. How did I get here? What do I enjoy about research? What is it about my subject that I think is fascinating? How could I link my work to stuff non-scientists might know? What were the amazing facts I could use to tempt people into listening?

Of course everyone worries about what they will say on their box, but at the end of an hour speakers often don’t want to stop! After my talk, I stepped down off my box exhausted but bursting with pride.

Challenging stereotypes and creating role models

Showcasing women scientists and their research challenges stereotypes about the people who can and do work in science. There is a familiar fact that, when asked to draw a scientist, children will most often portray a man, often with wild hair and a slightly crazed expression. Girls in particular have a sense from a young age that science is not a career for them.

However, the real loss of women from science starts after degree level. I was 30 when I started my PhD, and I have often wondered why I didn’t do it nine years earlier. The simple answer is that I didn’t know it was an option. Even for someone who had always enjoyed science, I was unaware that research was a job I could be paid to do. So my own experience suggests it’s important for scientists, and particularly women in science, to be visible and create positive role models.

I also think the message that scientists are a diverse group of people from a wide range of backgrounds is hugely important in our society at the moment. There is an increasing sense of society being divided into ‘them’ and ‘us’: academics/experts, perceived as detached and elitist, vs. ‘ordinary’ people, perceived as not interested in anything experts say.  The very public setting of Soapbox Science events deliberately aims to reach people who might not otherwise choose to engage with science, and gives people the opportunity to ask questions.

 Building networks

Finally, I really enjoyed meeting women from a range of different disciplines and institutions, and chatting about our career experiences and how we got to where we are now (as well as our fears about standing on a box in the middle of the street).

The stories were diverse, with some women moving between academia and industry, others juggling family commitments, and one describing being the only female faculty member in her department. No one said their path had been simple, but there was a sense that gender equality is moving in the right direction.

You can read more about past speakers’ experiences and thoughts about women in science on the Soapbox Science website.

Soapbox Science 2018

Locations and dates for Soapbox Science 2018 have recently been announced, including Norwich next October (closing date for speaker applications is 23rd February 2018). The events also need volunteers

to make them run smoothly, or follow @SoapboxScience on Twitter to join a growing community of people working towards greater equality in science. I thoroughly recommend getting involved!

Dr Joanne Godwin is a postdoc working with Professor Matt Gage, investigating the consequences of sexual selection for reproductive and life history traits at the individual and population level. You can read Soapbox Science’s interview with her on their website.

*Eggs and sperm

In case you’re wondering, the answer to the sperm question is the size of a matchstick. The difference in size and number of gametes – few large eggs vs. many tiny sperm – is the fundamental feature of two separate sexes but, crucially, these opposite strategies are equally successful!

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