Visible Women

Meet the physicist on a mission to change perceptions of women in science

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Moya Crockett
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Woman of the Week is Stylist’s weekly celebration of women who are making a difference to society. Here, we talk to Dr Jess Wade, a physicist on a mission to raise the profile of women in science. 

Dr Jess Wade has a much higher profile than most scientists conducting research into chiral organic light emitting diodes. When I mention to a friend that I’m interviewing the 29-year-old physicist, that friend – who has not been in a science lab since her GCSEs – brightens with recognition. “Oh, the Wikipedia scientist?” she says. “I’ve heard about her! She’s so cool!”

Wade, who has worked at Imperial College London since graduating from the university in 2012, is cool. Although she’s been giving talks in schools for years to try and encourage girls to study STEM subjects, it’s only in 2018 that she’s become something close to a science celebrity, thanks to her efforts to edit women scientists onto Wikipedia. Since January, she estimates she has written Wikipedia biographies on around 300 overlooked women in science – from Trinidadian marine biologist Diva Amon to the American biochemist Elizabeth Bugie, who helped discover the tuberculosis-fighting antibiotic streptomycin.

She chose to use Wikipedia to raise the profiles of women in science “because everyone uses it,” she says simply. “Whether people like to admit it or not, people spend a lot of their time googling things, and Wikipedia is usually the first thing that comes up.”

Wade’s efforts to raise awareness of women in science don’t stop with Wikipedia. Earlier this month, she and fellow scientist Claire Murray launched a campaign to get copies of a book that discredits so-called scientific “facts” about women into every UK state school. They hope to raise £20,000 via an online crowdfunding drive, enabling them to buy 2,000 signed copies of Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong and the New Science That’s Writing the Story by Angela Saini.

“Throughout history, scientists have looked at the world around them, seen inequality and taken it as a biological fact,” write Wade and Murray. They believe Inferior – which they describe as “a powerful, impartial and thoroughly researched look” at the origins of dangerous gender stereotypes – could be a potent tool in the hands of adolescent girls unsure of their own capabilities. Stylishly written and politically fascinating, it should also debunk the belief, still held by many teenagers, that science is boring.

Dr Wade on a trip to NASA 

Inferior for me is one of those books that you read and it just makes you think, wow,” Wade says. “How ridiculous is it that society is still telling men and women that they’ve got [innately] different brains and interests and hobbies and abilities?”

Reading Saini’s book made her realise why those stereotypes are still so potent, Wade says. For centuries, “scientists have been so determined to prove that men and women are different, that they’ve looked for anything in their results to say that’s so.”

She cites the example of Charles Darwin, who saw women’s inferior social status in the 19th century as evidence that they were biologically different from men. “Reading that made me angry and inspired to change things, but it also provided me with all of these resources and evidence.”

Wade sees this sort of education as the key to making girls feel more self-assured in their own academic and scientific abilities. “It’s really easy to go to a bunch of girls, ‘You’re not very confident, get more confident!’ But actually it’s much more effective to give them the skills to see how ridiculous [gender stereotypes are]. We need to give girls the tools to call out sexism.”

Dr Wade at an event for Stemettes at Imperial College London 

It’s compulsory for all students to study maths and science to GCSE level in the UK, but once those mandatory exams are out of the way, there is a huge drop-off in the number of girls taking STEM subjects. Just 35% of girls continue to study science, technology, engineering and/or maths subjects after their GCSEs, compared with 80% of boys.

Unsurprisingly, this means that far fewer women graduate from STEM subjects at British universities: in 2016/17, women made up just 24% of graduates in physical sciences, mathematical sciences, computer science and engineering and technology. Given that careers in these fields are often highly-paid, it’s clear that girls’ lack of interest in these subjects could cause them to lose out financially further down the line.

But Wade doesn’t think girls should be blamed for their lack of enthusiasm about science. As well as the issue of gender stereotyping, which has long dictated that boys take science, maths and technology subjects while girls study humanities and the arts, she sees the lack of skilled specialist science teachers as a major problem. She had “incredible chemistry and physics teachers at school”, but currently more than a third of physics teachers in UK schools don’t hold a degree in the subject.

“[Many students are] learning about physics from someone who doesn’t even really like it,” she says. “So they’re never going to get the inspiration that I had.”

“What we really need to do is change the culture of science”: Dr Jess Wade 

Wade views sexism in science through a wide lens. Not only are girls not encouraged to study STEM subjects at school, she says, but even those women who do become scientists may encounter gender stereotypes, sexual harassment and/or bullying in the workplace.

“What we really need to do is change the culture of science, because currently it is not ready to accept a whole bunch of fresh-faced girls,” she says. “There are structural biases that prevent women from succeeding.”

She cites student feedback, peer review and grant allocation as three areas that have been shown to be “biased against women. There’s a huge number of actual roadblocks within science that sometimes make you think, ‘I genuinely don’t know if I can be bothered to do this.’ But then the research is so great.”

This, ultimately, is what it all comes down to. Wade is keen to stress that despite the science world’s problems, she wouldn’t want to do anything else. Some of her research has contributed to the development of body sensors that can detect whether a person has a disease or needs a particular kind of treatment, something she describes as “sensationally exciting”.

“When you do an experiment or analyse data, you’re doing something no one’s ever done before,” she says. “You’re having discussions with people who could create a life-changing piece of technology. There is nothing more exciting than that.

“But I want everyone to be able to access that,” she continues. “I don’t want it to just be for the chosen few – the lucky girls who had a phenomenal teacher at their all girls’ schools, or the boys who just always had it handed to them. And I think that once we’ve got more diversity in science, it will become a better place.”

The Woman of the Week series is part of Stylist’s Visible Women campaign, dedicated to raising the profiles of brilliant women past and present. See more Visible Women stories here.

Images: Courtesy of Dr Jess Wade