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UK risks losing over 33,000 female scientists per year, finds research

As university students across the country celebrate the end of their studies, research from L’Oréal UK & Ireland, conducted by NUS Insight, shows that almost a quarter of today’s female science students are considering walking away from the subject they love once they graduate.


The research showed that some 23% of current female science students won’t or aren’t sure whether they will pursue a career in science, which equates to 33,371 students. Of those who say they won’t go into science, reasons include concerns about the future work-life balance (11%), future earning power (11%), and unappealing career options (48%). Some 15% say they have felt lonely and isolated.


That’s despite the fact that many students have long been committed to science, with half of those surveyed saying they first became interested in science at primary school age.


The research also showed that, while the majority of female science students enjoy their studies, 34% find it harder than they expected. Ongoing problems such as sexism and a lack of support for women in labs also persist; more than one in ten (11%) female students has experienced sexism within their studies, and a similar proportion (10%) say they’ve felt ostracised on their course. 12% don’t find it easy to get the help and support they need from other students or lecturers.


According to L’Oréal, which employs 3,870 scientists and researchers around the globe, these factors are contributing to under-representation of women working in STEM careers in the UK. Currently just 15% of the UK STEM workforce are women, and fewer than 3% of Nobel prizes in the sciences are awarded to women.


In response to this, L’Oréal has launched a global For Women in Science Manifesto (www.forwomeninscience.com) in association with UNESCO, encouraging people to sign up to a series of commitments to increase gender equality in science careers, including better support and mentoring for young women scientists. 


This week, at the annual UK & Ireland L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science Fellowship ceremony, five outstanding female scientists will be awarded Fellowships worth £15,000 to help with their research. Many of the 37 Fellows awarded to date in the UK have used their funding to provide vital support for their careers including helping pay for child care and manage the work-life balance, as well as buying important equipment and apparatus.


Atmospheric scientist Dr Paola Crippa, awarded a L’Oréal-UNESCO UK & Ireland Fellowship in 2015, said, “Working in science is an exciting and rewarding career. However, it can be tough to balance things like caring for a family when working in a research environment in particular, where funding is often limited. Without the Fellowship I’d have had to make a tough decision between furthering my research, and looking after my young daughter, but with it I was able to take him with me to study at a specialist centre in the USA.”


Dr Steve Shiel, scientific director at L’Oreal UK & Ireland, commented, “There’s no question that science needs women, and it’s disappointing that almost a quarter of passionate young UK scientists are being put off before they’ve even begun their career. The reality is that the concerns they face are similar to women working in any sector, but if we stand any chance of plugging the leaky pipeline of female scientists, those concerns need to be tackled head-on.


“We urge people to get behind this issue and support faster change, by signing our manifesto.”


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