Xanthe Polaine

The theme for this year’s International Day of Women and Girls in Science is “Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion: Water Unites Us". Does water really create a sense of unity, and who do we mean by ‘us’? 

As a woman in science and a woman working with water, I’ve experienced first-hand some of the barriers that exist to accessing this space. At university, I studied civil engineering and found myself one of only 16 girls in a cohort of around 90 students. Engineering is a common entry point for a career in the water sector, and the ‘STEM’ (science, technology, engineering, and maths) subjects tend to be required for entry onto such courses. There is generally a need to have studied these subjects from a young age, but statistics demonstrate a gender imbalance amongst pupils. In the UK, boys are far more likely than girls to choose STEM subjects at A-level, and the further the subjects are pursued in education, the less women in science seem to exist. I personally found that this makes the initial uptake of these subjects intimidating and harder to participate in. As a teenager I did not consider a career in engineering, partly due to being encouraged into careers that have more of a gender balance – architecture, for example. My experience is not unusual: only 25.4% of girls in the UK aged 16-18 would consider a career in engineering, compared to 51.9% of boys, and only 35% of STEM students in higher education globally are women.

Members of the Hub carrying out water quality sampling

On average, just 30% of the world’s researchers are women. In Latin America, women make up 40% of researchers, but the figure falls to 30% in Western Europe and sub-Saharan Africa, 18.5% in South Asia, and under 15% in India. At less than 10%, the UK has the lowest percentage of female engineering professionals in Europe. Beyond engineering, the UK water sector as a whole fares slightly better, but women still only make up less than 30% of the sector’s workforce overall. These figures make it clear that my chances of ending up in a career in the water sector, particularly as an engineer, were low. Statistics alone demonstrate a need for systemic changes to improve access to science for those who identify as women and girls, and equality in the sectors they work in once they get there. If trends in engineering entrants continue, gender equality will not be achieved for another three decades.

As someone who works with many international colleagues, I am surrounded by a wide range of women in science working in water research. When I think of these women, I believe they are the biggest encouragers of my enthusiasm to pursue this career. It is extremely important to recognise that it is not only about the science that these women and girls do, but about the support and encouragement that they give, and in this sense, water does unite us.

Just some of the amazing women in our Hub team

Many of the women in science that I work with, however, would not identify under the STEM disciplines. How are these people then included in the women in science discourse? When it comes to the water sector, we perhaps need to expand our definition and understanding of science to include a broader range of people. Alongside female researchers we have teachers, community leaders, schoolchildren, activists, and many more. This hybrid space presents a challenge. If we want to promote women and girls in science, we need to recognise that being in science is not exclusive or bound to formally identified roles. It needn’t necessarily encompass anything more than wanting to learn about the world and water around us, and wanting to change it for the better. We need to be careful to make sure this space is inviting – something I’ve found is not always the case – to the full spectrum of people I believe are women and girls in science.

If we’re talking about water as a career, I believe it is limiting, intimidating, and uninviting. If we are talking about water as a community of practice, making a healthier world for us all, it is almost always women and girls who shoulder the bulk of the work. If we’re trying to encourage women and girls to pursue science, and work with water, then, we are also asking a lot of this group of people. We want them to be trailblazers, but they are often more burdened due to the multiple ‘roles’ they have. These are the broader challenges of equity, diversity and inclusion that must be addressed if we are to have conversations about water, science, and unity – and at present, they’re not taking place.

I am left wondering if we can do more for women and girls in science, especially the watery corners of science. Calling out the problem of underrepresentation of women in STEM is a start to solving the problem, but the need to do so also highlights the issue even more. There is an obvious point to be made on encouraging girls into STEM and science careers in the first place, but a bigger problem remains. Once women and girls get there, it is a repetitive space that still seems to inherit the same problems that we have experienced from being a girl, to being a woman.

The UN’s concept note provided for this year’s International Day of Women and Girls in Science mentions women and girls in science being “beneficiaries and agents of change”. I can’t help thinking, beneficiaries of what? Surely, we alone do not benefit from equality, diversity, and inclusion in science: these benefits are felt by all of those around us. Similarly, do we want to pressure young girls into feeling responsible for being an agent of change in science when they are still largely underrepresented in this field? Part of the solution is to make more women more visible. We need more systemic involvement and action by boys and men. We need broader coalitions and more coordinated action by governments, industry, and higher education to empower role models, provide inspiration, encourage women and girls in science, and make these roles better places. Only then, could water attempt to unite us through science.

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