Women in STEM Societies

Ella-Bleu Kiely speaks with three of Trinity’s STEM women on their society and academic lives

The fields of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics, known collectively as STEM, are often considered supreme areas of study, especially in the Trinity sphere. Many female scientists have made pioneering contributions to the history of science, confirming their integral role in STEM, which has been challenged down through the ages. Significant gaps and obstacles still exist. Therefore, it is imperative to create more collaborative, equal, and inclusive environments for women in every office, lab and workplace. For this, Trinity’s STEM societies are an active platform. I spoke with Kate Elliot (DU Physoc), Fiona Brogan (DU Management Science Society) and Tara King (TCD Science Society) on their views and experiences in their line of work and extra-curricular lives. 

Kate Elliot is a third year physics student specialising in nanoscience, and the current secretary of DU Physoc. After entering college straight from an all-girls secondary school, she described it as a huge change going straight into physics: “It’s probably 75% male. The change was kinda hard in first year but I honestly think being so involved in Physoc definitely helped with that.” The body and committee of Physoc is made up of a majority of women, which Elliot feels is “nice to have a space that’s still all about physics but more equal. It’s always a welcoming community.” 

Elliot believes that stereotyping of women in physics still lingers, but recognizes the positive constant progression. “There are more women in STEM and especially physics with more equal views. But I think it’s almost like sometimes internally you feel like you have to do better to almost prove that you should be there or can be there. When, of course, you should.”

What attracted Elliot to physics was understanding how the world around us works. “There’s so many things that we just see everyday and there’s actually a lot behind that…I think in my later years of school I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do but I always had some form of science in the back of my head.” 

“Some people would still think Physics or STEM is so male dominated and that it hasn’t always been women who discovered such important things.”

An individual from the STEM world who Elliot admires is Rosalind Franklin, who is credited with the discovery of the structure of DNA, and who won the Nobel Prize in Physiology/Medicine in 1962 alongside Francis Crick, James Watson and Maurice Wilkins. The English chemist and x-ray crystallographer’s contributions to the major discovery were greatly unrecognised during her life, for which she has been referred to as the “wronged heroine”, the “dark lady of DNA” and a “feminist icon”. Elliot said: “Some people would still think Physics or STEM is so male dominated and that it hasn’t always been women who discovered such important things.” 

Most recently with Physoc, Elliot travelled to Switzerland where they were guests at the University of Geneva there, as well as to Kraków in Poland with the society when she was in first year. “When I was in first year I thought it was so nice and great to see people in older years that were similar to me and kinda just to have that connection of what was ahead of me”, she expressed. “I think it’s so important for women in the STEM field to have a community. In Physoc you’ll be supported and made to feel like your place is the same as everyone else’s.” 

Fiona Brogan is a third year Management Science and Information System Studies (MSISS) student and a member of the Dublin University Management Science Society (DUMSS). She first joined the society in first year as it was recommended by older years in her course. “It’s quite a small society, which in a way is nice because you really recognise all the faces around campus,” she said. 

On being asked how she would describe her standing as a woman in the STEM world, Brogan explained that she feels lucky in the sense of both her course and DUMSS both being equally full of men and women: “I’ve never faced any issues or discrimination with being a female in what I do. I find the environment that I’m constantly in to be fair, with no judgement.” “I’m also lucky enough that I’m quite outspoken. I suppose if I was shy I’d maybe have a different outlook”, she laughed. 

The third year MSISS student, who would consider herself more of a computer scientist, recognises that there’s still certain stereotyping of women in the field, but not so much in her area of expertise. “Honestly, if I ever think about the standing of both men and women in STEM I’d never look to computer science. It’s so heavy-going on the actual content that there’s not really room for debate or opinion,” she explained. Brogan feels that “it’s like learning a new language, not exploring new theorems or other people’s work.” 

From work experience in her younger years, Brogan came to understand how important working with technology in businesses is at times like these. “I have an interest in finance, but I’m also bringing with me a massive interest in computer science and technology, with a sprinkling of business.” “I’m not a purebred STEM kid, but I appreciate all the benefits that come along with it”, she said. 

“The society definitely gives you a good taste of what you could do, and if you have an interest in the field it can really help you with where you can go with it.”

Brogan shared that she feels one of the greatest things about DUMSS is all the contact the society keeps with Trinity alumni: “Networking is a huge benefit of being involved in the society.” DUMSS frequently hosts guest speakers from the management field, as well as holding career fairs in the areas of finance, consulting and data analytics. “The society definitely gives you a good taste of what you could do, and if you have an interest in the field it can really help you with where you can go with it.” 

Tara King is a final year Biochemistry student and the current Secretary of TCD Science Soc. She has also just completed her thesis, entitled Examining the signalling effects of Nitric Oxide production in Triple Negative Breast Cancer Cells. She first got involved in the society last year as she has always been passionate about communicating science to younger people or those who aren’t very familiar with it. “Sort of just making it sound less complicated,” she explains. “Science is just such an interest of mine. Basically, I wanted to be involved  in something that helps other science students and makes it more accessible.”

King feels that being a young woman in STEM now has “come on leaps and bounds.” “I personally haven’t experienced any of the misogyny that the likes of some of my lecturers would have. Science Soc actually held a women in STEM panel a few weeks ago, and one of the female lecturers who was giving a talk was saying that in the past men have commented on her chest size at conferences”, she said. “One thing I’ve always noticed in lectures is that men will always get credited for what they find, and lecturers often forget the womens names involved.” 

“What does a scientist look like? Braces and nerdy? The typical stereotype of being socially awkward?”

She understands that she does not face the obstacles that women in her field would have just a generation ago, but definitely feels that stereotyping of women in STEM is still here: “I feel that sometimes when I tell people I study science there like ‘oh really? You don’t look like a scientist.’ What does a scientist look like? Braces and nerdy? The typical stereotype of being socially awkward?” 

King alluded to stereotypes of women being less intelligent, which she says that both her and her friends have been subject to. “Just because we have a decent social life and we’re not studying or in the lab 24/7 we can’t be properly dedicated scientists? There’s definitely a burnout culture in science, and you feel like you have to work so much harder to get where men are. It feels like you’re never doing enough and it’s an issue”, said King. 

When asked if there’s anyone in the STEM world she particularly admires, King referred to the Women in STEM panel held by Science Soc: “What was most inspiring is how these greatly accomplished women were speaking about imposter syndrome, and how they still feel like they don’t fully belong.” However, King expressed that one who she truly looks up to is her thesis supervisor Emma Creagh ( Assistant Professor at the School of Biochemistry & Immunology). “She’s such an accessible and friendly person. In meetings she’d always bring up her family and it’s nice that she feels like she didn’t have to make the sacrifice of family for academic success. She has both, and even runs her own lab”, said King. The notion of having to trade off family and career is often foisted upon women, in a way it isn’t on men. “I really look up to Emma and if I was half the woman she is now I’d be proud,” King adds. 

King said that Science Soc is fantastic for networking, and from regular career talks held by the society, you’re given different insights into a lot of different paths. “I think the society can really show you what life as a scientist can really be like”, she explained. King encourages to get involved in a society as young as you can and wishes she got involved in Science Soc sooner: “There can be some work involved in being in a society, but it’s worth it, and it’s a great college and life experience.” 

From speaking with these three STEM-driven women, it was interesting to consider the overlap in their own personal standings in their separate fields. Over time, the attitudes of and towards women in STEM have evolved greatly, but stereotypes and difficulties with inclusivity are still present. However, Physoc, DUMMS and Science Soc are working to break down these barriers. These three women, along with their societies, are working towards a truly equal standing for women in STEM. 

Ella-Bleu Kiely

Ella-Bleu Kiely is the current Societies Editor of Trinity News, and a Junior Sophister Classics and English Literature student.