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Street science tackles implicit bias in science and society

Image of a scientist talking at a previous Soapbox Science event

Soapbox Science began with one event in London in 2011; this year it has expanded to 13 UK cities and to Brisbane, Australia

Press release issued: 6 May 2016

Over 160 female scientists will take their science to the streets of 13 UK cities across England, Wales and Scotland this summer for the Soapbox Science Festival. Now in its sixth year, Soapbox Science challenges perceptions of who a scientist is by celebrating diversity in women in science.

From Exeter to Edinburgh, Manchester to Milton Keynes, women scientists will be taking to their soapboxes in popular public spaces such as parks, high streets and beaches to share their passion for science with the public.  This year also sees the first overseas event – in Brisbane, Australia.

The festival has two aims: to bring the opportunity to meet and interact with scientists to unexpected places, and to increase the visibility of women in science. 

In the UK, women account for 35 per cent of PhD science graduates, but only 11 per cent of senior lecturers and less than 8 per cent of professors. The UK has an annual shortfall in domestic supply of around 40,000 new STEM skilled workers.  One solution is to retain the women currently being lost from science.

Implicit bias – an unconscious cognitive phenomenon where we negatively assess a person’s ability – is driving the loss of women scientists.  Both men and women can be guilty of implicit gender bias: for example, pilots are generally thought of as being men and nurses as women.

Soapbox Science co-founder, Dr Nathalie Pettorelli of the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) said: “Soapbox Science gives female scientists the much-needed boost to their visibility and profile they need to help achieve equality in science.  In the five years of Soapbox, we have seen real impact on the career paths of our speakers, raising their profiles and opening new opportunities for them within the science communities.“

Recent studies show that implicit bias is a big problem among scientists and the public alike.  For example, academic employers rank CVs with a female name lower than identical CVs with a male name.  In applications for science funding, women need to be 2.5 times as productive as men to receive the same ‘competence score’.  The public believe that the explanation for the so-called ‘leaky pipeline’ (a metaphor for the continuous loss of women in STEM as they climb the career ladder) is that females ‘lack ability’ to be high-level scientists.

The 2016 Soapbox Science festival challenges these perceptions of who a scientist is by celebrating the diverse backgrounds of women scientists, with speakers from several different nationalities, speakers who started their scientific careers late in life and speakers with disabilities. 

Soapbox Science co-founder, Dr Seirian Sumner of the University of Bristol said: “This year, we are delighted to be able to showcase women from a huge range of backgrounds.  These women show that there is no one ‘type’ of person who is a scientist.  Soapbox Science aims to break down pre-conceptions of who a scientist is, and inspire a new generation of girls into science irrespective of their background.”

Last year, Soapbox Science events reached over 30,000 members of the public, with feedback showing they not only enjoyed it – they plan to come again. 

This year’s talks cover such diverse subjects as how quickly we can determine pathogens during disastrous outbreaks (London event), the evolution of galaxies (Exeter event), and how man-made noise affects marine mammals (Newcastle event).

With speakers ranging from PhD students to professors, Soapbox Science represents the full spectrum of the academic career path, and gives speakers themselves the chance to meet and network with other women in science.

Events are open to the public, free of charge, and great fun.  Expect hands-on props, experiments and specimens, not to mention bags of passion and enthusiasm.

Dr Sumner said: “By showcasing the diversity of women in science, we hope to challenge both the public and scientific communities to think again about who a scientist is: there is no ‘typical scientist’.  By challenging perceptions among people of all ages, we hope to influence the choices of the younger generation and their families and friends, making it acceptable and normal for girls from any background to follow a career in science.”

Further information

Soapbox Science was founded in 2011 by Dr Nathalie Pettorelli (Institute of Zoology, Zoological Society of London) and Dr Seirian Sumner (University of Bristol), both awarded L’Oreal For Women in Science fellowships

The program is supported by the Science and Technologies Facilities Council (STFC), L’Oreal, the Zoological Society of London and the University of Bristol.

Over 200 women have taken part in Soapbox Science since 2011, with a further 150 participating in the 13 events taking place over 2016.

The festival began with one event in London from 2011 to 2013.  In 2014 the festival expanded to three additional locations (Dublin, Swansea and Bristol), and a further three locations in 2015 (Belfast, Newcastle and Glasgow). The festival has expanded again to a total of 12 UK locations nationwide in 2016, and the first international Soapbox event in Brisbane, Australia.

Over 30,000 people have attended Soapbox Science events since it began in 2011, with 85 per cent rating them as enjoyable or extremely enjoyable, and over a third stating it had an effect on their awareness of women in science.

A public survey (L’Oreal For Women in Science Survey 2015) of over 5,000 adults across Europe showed that over 50 per cent of the public believe that the lack of gender equality in science is because women are less able as scientists.

A study found that academics rank CVs with female names lower than identical CVs with male names (Ross-Racusin et al. 2012).

A study found that in applications for science funding, women need to be 2.5 times as productive as men to receive the same ‘competence score’ (Wenneras & Wold, 1997).

The figures for women in science quoted above come from the EU report ‘She Figures 2012 – Gender in Research and Innovation, European Commission’.

Dates for Soapbox Sciences events

London – Saturday 28 May

Cardiff – Saturday 4 June

Exeter – Saturday 11 June

Newcastle – Saturday 18 June

Oxford – Saturday 18 June

Cambridge – Saturday 2 July

Milton Keynes – Saturday 9 July

Reading – Saturday 9 July

Bristol – Saturday 16 July

Manchester – Saturday 23 July

Edinburgh – Sunday 24 July

Hull – Saturday 3 September

Swansea – Saturday 10 September

And in Australia:

Brisbane – Saturday 20 August

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