The UN’s International Day of Women and Girls in Science is 11th February this year. The day draws attention to the significant gender gap which persists at all levels of STEM disciplines all over the world. Even though women have made tremendous progress towards increasing their participation in high education, they are still underrepresented in these fields.  

All this week, from Monday through to Sunday, Fawcett will be showcasing women who are #SmashingStereotypes through their work in our #ShakeUpSTEM guest series. 

Together we can #ShakeUpSTEM!

Our #ShakeUpSTEM advocate today is Samara Linton, medical doctor, an award-winning writer, and the editor of The Colour of Madness, an anthology exploring Black, Asian, and Minority Ethnic (BAME) mental health in the UK. She writes about gender, race, and health for multiple publications and was awarded Best New Journalist at the Ending Violence Against Women Media Awards 2016. Samara is a University of Cambridge and a University College London graduate. She tweets at @Samara_Linton.

The proportion of women working in STEM has been increasing year on year, and this increase is even greater when we look at women from Black, Asian, and Minority Ethnic (BAME) backgrounds.


Girls from a BAME background are more likely to study a STEM subject at A-level than white girls. For example, Indian, Chinese, and Black African female students are two to three times more likely to achieve three or more A-levels in science than their white counterparts.  A similar pattern is seen at university and occupational levels, where BAME women are overrepresented in women studying STEM subjects and pursuing STEM careers.


However, when I dissect the BAME umbrella, a disheartening pattern emerges. Black Caribbean women and girls are underrepresented in STEM at every stage of the pipeline. From the very first stages of education, unconscious - and sometimes, conscious - race and gender biases discourage and discredit young black girls. Last year, a landmark study found that black students, in particular, black girls, were more likely to be misallocated to a lower set in maths. This finding was independent of the socio-economic background of the child.


As a black woman working as a teacher in an inner-city London school, my mother saw this happen time and time again. As a result, whenever I started a new school and was not placed in the top set, my mum would take the time to meet with my teachers and ask them to explain this decision. She would advise them to give me an exam, and then they would look at my results together. Each time, the teachers would apologise and move me to the top set, recognising that their decision had been founded in assumptions rather than evidence.


By the time we reach our teenage years, most of us already have a strong attraction or aversion to STEM subjects. Even when we control for prior educational attainment, Black Caribbean students are among the least likely to study a STEM subject at A-Level, and are disproportionately encouraged to study vocational courses. Though, interestingly, black girls are the only ethnic group that outnumber their male colleagues in STEM subjects at A-Level.


Those of us who do study STEM subjects at university, often find ourselves feeling isolated and alienated, and many of us struggle with our degree. Moreover, rarely taught by people who look like us. There are a mere 26 black female professors in the UK, and on average female academics earn approximately 37% less than their male colleagues. Research has also found that black women who work in STEM have their competence challenged and experience microaggressions and bullying routinely.


I do not believe the solutions to the underrepresentation of black women in STEM are simple, but they are necessary. From the earliest stages of our education, black girls need people who encourage rather than discourage our interests. We deserve teachers, mentors, and counsellors who make active efforts to deconstruct their preconceptions about our capabilities. We need to actively encourage black girls to study STEM subjects, introducing them to role models, walking them through the application process, and protecting their mental health. We need to address the overwhelming isolation many black students face at university, the culture of sexual harassment and entitlement that harm so many girls and women at every stage of their careers. We need our complaints to be taken seriously, and our work to be given the opportunity to speak for itself.


Many incredible movements are already working towards this - for example, Stemettes, the African Science Academy, and Black in AI. We have films like Hidden Figures and Black Panther increasing the representation of black women in STEM on our screens.


We have the Black and Asian Therapists Network which makes therapy more accessible to BAME groups, and pushes to improve the mental welfare of BAME university students, because not only should we be present, but we must be able to thrive. I believe that the future of STEM is filled with women who look like me, and I cannot help but hope that future is closer than we think.


By Samara Linton

Follow the rest our #ShakeUpSTEM guest series on the Fawcett blog


We've come so far in a century of campaigning for gender equality, but our work isn't over yet. 

Create a fairer and more equal society by becoming a Fawcett member today. Together we can end sexism and misogyny for good.