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The International Day of Women and Girls in Science aims to connect the International Community to Women and Girls in Science, strengthening the ties between science, policy, and society for strategies oriented towards the future. To mark the occasion, Annabelle Ziegler and Ben Dean spoke to members of the Department to gather their views on the challenges women have faced in STEM activities, and what society can do to pave the way for parity in STEM roles.

11 February marks International Day of Women and Girls in Science, an event created in December 2015, after member states in the UN General Assembly agreed on a resolution signalling the global community’s interest in transforming our world through achieving gender parity in educational opportunity and scientific participation and preparation.

A significant gender gap has persisted throughout the years at all levels of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) disciplines all over the world. Even though women have made tremendous progress towards increasing their participation in higher education, they are still under-represented in these fields. We spoke with four members of our Department to understand more about their own challenges in breaking through into the world of STEM, what lessons society has learned in promoting STEM, and what needs to happen to maintain momentum to achieve parity between the numbers of male and female in STEM careers.


Monica Olcina is a Medical Research Council-funded Group Leader, specialising in immune radiation biology. Monica is also an Associate Research Fellow at St Hilda’s College as well a Course Director for the Department's MSc in Radiation Biology.

Monica Olcina

What are the challenges you have faced as a woman in science and how have these challenges been overcome?

Some childcare responsibilities inevitably still disproportionately affect women more than me due to their nature. When caring for a young breastfeeding baby, for example, I found my ability to travel to conferences, give talks (away from home) etc. was compromised. Generous shared parental leave schemes can help with some of these issues but unfortunately some challenges will likely remain.

What advice would you provide to women who are interested in pursuing a career in science research and administration?

People who are successful are not (usually!) 'superhuman' - they are just motivated and persevere even when things get hard. Find a career path that motivates you and always seek good mentors. This probably applies to most careers!

In comparison to male peers, females are underrepresented in science and technology fields due to gender biases. A study in 2013 found that girls are less likely to be encouraged to study physics by their teachers, family, and friends. How have attitudes changed over the years and what can we do as a community to overcome these challenges? 

I was encouraged to see that, in our MSc in Radiobiology program last year, the number of women with a physics background was greater than the number of men!

As a community we can contribute to changing perceptions around who should work in science and technology fields by exposing young people to role models from diverse backgrounds working in different areas of STEM. Initiatives that help young people gain a better understanding of what a career in STEM looks like are valuable.

What initiatives should society look to, to encourage stronger uptake of STEM subjects?

To highlight just a few…

  • Encourage girls (and everyone!) to keep studying at least one STEM subject in school and explain the great and diverse career prospects this can bring
  • Expose young people to positive role models in the community to show them that a successful career in STEM could be possible for them too
  • Celebrate the work of people working in STEM and highlight how diverse backgrounds can contribute to discovery and innovation.


Arussa Nawaz

Arussa Nawaz is a DPhil student working the Blagden Lab. Arussa's project work focusses on the role of La-related protein (LARP) family of RBPs in tumorigenesis, particularly LARP1b of which there is currently very little knowledge describing its function.

What are the challenges you have faced as a woman in a male-dominated field?

One of the biggest challenges I have faced as a woman in science is confidence - being in a male-dominated field has meant I've had to consistently prove my worth and show my (mostly male) peers that I'm capable of everything they're capable of, and more! I also lacked an appropriate mentor during the earlier stages of my scientific career making my journey in STEM a little harder than I had imagined.

What advice would you provide to women who are interested in pursuing a career in science research?

Stay confident, stay curious and always seek knowledge. It's challenging breaking barriers but the reward of successfully doing so makes it all worthwhile!

How have attitudes changed over the years when it comes to girls and women pursuing STEM roles?

I think science communication via social media has made a huge change in the bias we have previously seen. This has led to an increase in knowledge surrounding STEM subjects and has made these subjects more likeable by young girls as well as their families and friends. We have also seen more representation of girls/women in science on TV; although often characters in a fantasy movie, they represent ambition and confidence which are key traits required in science! As a community it's important to continue reaching out to young girls encouraging them to follow their interest in STEM subjects.

What can we focus on to enable a stronger uptake of STEM subjects?

I think outreach programmes are key - get students at various stages of their education and early career involved in various programmes that allow them to see what life as a scientist is really like! I'm keen to revisit my former schools and talk to students about my journey in STEM and anticipate a significant, positive impact on the students.


Linda Collins is a portfolio lead for an array of Oncology clinical trials through the OCTO team, and supports the management of these trials from set up to conclusion. 

Linda Collins with scientist colleagues in the 1990s

You have had a varied career in science. What have you observed in your roles when it comes to opportunities for career progression for women?

In my career as a scientist I have worked in small start-up and medium-sized biotech companies, large pharma and academia. I have been fortunate to not have experienced any major challenges, however I have not had children and therefore not had to manage the complexities of balancing work and family life in the same way as working parents. I have witnessed that senior positions are male dominated, particularly in large pharma, but I have also been fortunate to have worked with many inspirational women in senior management.

What message do you have for girls pursuing a career in science research and administration?

Go for it! I loved science and nature as a child and I still find it fascinating – there is always something new to learn!

How have attitudes changed over the years and what can we do to engage with the next generation of potential women scientists? 

Maybe I have been fortunate but back in the 70s, when I was at school, although there was still the gender divide between domestic science for girls (yes, I was taught how to starch collars!) and woodwork for boys, I never witnessed any discouragement for girls to take the sciences. My parents were also encouraging, even when no one in my family had done sciences or even gone onto further education. I took physics, chemistry and biology at A level and then read Biology at Portsmouth Polytechnic – but I’ve never starched a shirt collar! My family were always proud of the fact I had an “Ology” (those of you of a certain age will get the reference). I think we are getting better at bringing down the barriers. Open days are a really good way to let kids see science as fun. Maybe pop-up workshops that could be taken on the road around schools would be a good way of inspiring children to consider the sciences from an early age. 

What initiatives should society look to, to encourage stronger uptake of STEM subjects?

We are all bombarded by social media and reality TV with the obsession of 'celebrity'. Maybe there could be some new shows to glam up science - The Masked Scientist? Strictly Come DNA Sequencing? But seriously, I think influencers could be used in a more positive way to make STEM subjects as career opportunities more attractive to all young people.


Hannah Bolland

Hannah Bolland is a post-doctoral researcher in the Hammond Lab. Hannah was awarded 'Best Tutor' 2 years in a row and gained the 'Early Career Excellent Teacher Award' from the Medical Sciences Division at Oxford, and was also recently awarded a fellowship from the Surrey Future Leaders Fellowship Scheme, moving Hannah to the University of Surrey as a Junior Group Leader in May to set up her own lab investigating the role of peroxisome biogenesis in triple negative breast cancer.

What are the challenges you have faced as a woman breaking into science and how have these challenges been overcome?

There have been a few challenges I have experienced, and as a first generation scientist with no other family members who ever studied STEM, there have been limited amounts of female role models and mentors in science for me growing up. Not being taken seriously by male peers or colleagues gives rise to feelings that you have to do more than male counterparts to prove your commitment or dedication, and I have also met preconceptions that women who are in positions of power can often be mislabelled as 'bossy' whereas male counterparts may be described as 'powerful', 'leading' or 'assertive'. I also realised that there may not be a right time in my academic career to have kids - can I juggle being a PI and a mother? I can just about look after myself and do lab work, so that would certainly be a challenge!

To overcome these challenges, in my scientific career I have sought out and built my own network of women in STEM in the form of friends and colleagues who want to stay in academia, where we all help to mentor and encourage one another. Also by mentoring other young women in academia, this has helped to create a little 'science family' which brings a great sense of wellbeing, togetherness, positivity, support and is wonderful company. We all work together with each other’s best interest at heart and a common goal, including giving each other the strength to call out behaviour that is sexist or undermining. I’ve been very lucky to have an extremely supportive family and partner, who understands when I might have to stay in the lab late to finish an experiment!

How would you advise girls and women interested in progressing a career in STEM research and administration?

Do what makes you happy and what excites you - you don’t want to look back on your life and regret not having done something you are passionate about just because you were worried about what other people might think. Also, say 'yes' to opportunities even if they take you out of your comfort zone. Being a scientist is a central part of my identity that lies beyond my gender: surround yourself with (like-minded) people who inspire you, don’t underestimate yourself, aim high and be around people who intellectually challenge you.

How have attitudes changed over the years and what can we do as a community to overcome these challenges? 

We are seeing more and more young girls decide to study science at University (which is amazing). Since 2015, the proportion of women enrolled in university STEM fields of education increased by 2%. This reached 36% in 2019 (more than up from 34% in 2015), but we can still do better and I hope this number keeps increasing in the future. We need to continue to show young girls what careers in STEM can provide them in terms of opportunities, job satisfaction and the opportunity to discover things!

A problem still remains in retaining women in positions of leadership. We need to continue to increase the visibility of women in these positions to continue to dispel the myths that 'science is hard, just for boys'. I think we also need to encourage mentorship opportunities between 'early career' researchers and female PIs to actively encourage people to consider taking on a leadership role in science.

What initiatives should society look to, to encourage stronger uptake of STEM subjects?

Increasing the visibility of women as mentors, speakers and leaders will lead to more role models locally and globally. Research indicates that when women see other women in high profile positions it helps them feel a stronger sense of belonging. So it’s important for young scientists to see women as mentors, speakers and leaders in their field. Also, get rid of programmes like Love Island - they provide young girls with terrible 'role models' who they see in TV and social media every day.

We can also provide young women with tools to equip them with skills such as self-confidence, reliability, self-efficacy, strong orientation toward achievement and the importance of intrinsic motivation. Whether that be through reflective learning, coaching, career counselling, etc., these are all things organisations such as colleges and schools can offer young girls. 


You can find out more about International Day of Women and Girls in Science by visiting the UN Website (opens in new window).