Women in STEM: three ways to recognise Black and Asian women in the sector

On International Day of women and girls in science, we recognise women of colour in STEM

The 2016 Hidden Figures movie was transformative. As much for the story as the brilliance and energy of the starring actors. But also for laying out so clearly the challenges and discrimination faced by Black women scientists in the USA in the 1960s.

I was excited to see a film uncovering the significant contribution to the biggest science story of the decade, landing a human on the moon, and the pivotal role played by women. But overall, it was just a great film.

Of most significance was the film gave young Black girls their own heroes. Women who fought back, were resourceful and strong in the face of constant racism and misogyny. The message: embrace who you are and never take no for an answer.

And it’s given me inspiration and fuel for many a talk, adding profiles of women that in some cases people just had no idea had worked at their site, some 50 or more years before, helping connect businesses and research institutions with their own hidden past. For International Day of women and girls in science, I reached out to some of the amazing contacts I’ve come across to find out what can be done to support and celebrate women in science and engineering.

Imagine what we could have achieved, without being blind to diverse talent and passion, to have built a more diverse STEM workforce.

We’re losing talent

While working at the Royal Society around 2003, NESTA approached me to deliver a piece of work on role models. My big question was how to ensure it was diverse. Where are and how many Black or Asian STEM role models were in the UK, and how many were women? Quite simply, no one knew.

I commissioned a study to find out. The project output was the first study on intersectionality in STEM and included a guidebook addressing inclusion in STEM outreach activities. Since then, countless studies have documented the differential experiences: for example, the degree-awarding gap, lower starting salaries, and wider pay gap. Happily, the Office for Students and AdvanceHE are pushing our educational establishments hard to do better. But for me, it’s all too slow. I write that with irony having a copy of Virginia Valian’s book, “Women in Science, why so slow?” on my desk. From 1998.

In the UK, in 2021, just 160 out of 22,855 professors in 2020/21 are Black, and only 25 of these are women; a meagre 1% while  7% of professors are Asian

What can we do to channel minority talent?

For decades the cry has been about role models. And we hear louder than ever, post the 2020 Black Lives Matter campaign that you can’t be what you can’t see. I see this as a push approach to attracting more non-White girls into STEM careers. But there is simply no point in filling the ‘pipeline’ if, once they arrive at the promised land, they are given second rate accommodation, alienated and made to feel unwelcome, poorly rewarded for their efforts and excluded from opportunities to gain the right skillsets.

Positive role models are important.

So where can you go for STEM role models?

In recent years universities and professional societies have really stepped up to promote diversity within the professions they represent. For example, Sheffield University has the ‘Wall of Women‘ that has grown and evolved over time. UCL Engineering has produced a careers quiz and character set. The Institution of Engineering and Technology celebrate women engineering with its Young Woman Engineer of the Year and has produced a cohort of outstanding role models, including Mamta Singhal, recognised in the 2022 New Year’s Honours List. And finally Being Black in STEM (BBSTEM) and Association for Black and Minority Ethnic Engineers (AFBE) provide support and career development for their members.

Mamta Singhal, design engineer and campaigner on diversity in engineering.

I reached out to some amazing women to find out if role models were important to them. Professor Ijeoma Uchegbu, a researcher and educator, told me: “Role models are very important, especially role models with a similar back story to one’s own, as they allow you to see yourself in positions of success. However, it is important for role models to be honest about the hard work that it takes to achieve a rewarding career doing meaningful work. Too often successful individuals tell a truncated story and miss out the setbacks and disappointments. Telling the truth about what it takes will allow others to see a setback as simply that and not as a career-destroying event.”

Professor Ijeoma Uchegbu researcher and educator working at the UCL School of Pharmacy.

And Georgia Thompson, a Civil Engineer, currently working for Bam Nuttall, added: I think role models are incredibly important both for inspiration and aspirations. I don’t think anyone really wants to be first and that is problematic in so many ways. One small comment from someone you admire has the potential to change the direction of your life. The lack of visible women and people of colour in my sector has led me to find role models from all aspects of my life and the broader society. However, evidently, I find myself as a source of role model to myself as I often look back on how far I have come, it causes me to ponder how much further I can go. 

Georgia Thompson manages the design of bridge reconstructions and refurbishments at Network Rail.

So while you are reading about other amazing women, what can you do to acknowledge, learn about and make less well-represented scientists and engineers (for many engineers start out as scientists!) feel welcomed?

Three actions to celebrate and realise the potential of Black and minority ethnic scientists and engineers:

1.    Celebrate the STEM women in your organisation

Visibility is important, but there are ways to acknowledge people’s contributions to your community without being shallow or tokenistic. I’m always minded to think of Baroness Brown, when she took over as Chief Executive of the Institute of Physics, and famously said that she quite simply didn’t “want any dead people on the walls”. She wanted to portray a modern and vibrant organisation. She took a similar approach at Aston University, where as Vice-Chancellor she filled the corridor outside her office with images of people who were nominated, by members of the Aston community, to represent the university.

Mel Ahmed, Managing Director of Techwuman says: “Giving the next generation somebody to look up to, to follow and to see achieving, has a big effect on how many young girls want to pursue this as a career. This is one of the reasons now that I try and be a role model for the next generation, offering them advice and guidance whenever they need it.”

2.    Creating a positive and inclusive environment

Imagery is great and important. But what we also need to do is have a simultaneous pull approach. Pull is making STEM a great place to work for women of colour. As colleagues, managers, or employers, one of the greatest things we can do is to give people our attention. Noticing their presence, including them in the conversation and acknowledging their potential. As a minority in STEM, it’s easy to feel alienated in many small, cumulative ways. Sometimes inviting contributions or suggesting opportunities can be transformative. It is for each of us to include others, to take the time to notice who we include in our conversations, whether we have unintentionally formed an ‘inner circle’, and to make sure that we actively invite contributions from those we notice are not participating.

Ijeoma was early in her career when Martyn Davies, a colleague and pharmaceutical scientist from the University of Nottingham, approached her at a conference and said why don’t you apply for funding from the EPSRC? At the time she was about one year into her first lectureship and had one peer-reviewed grant to her name from the Wellcome Trust. She applied to the EPSRC, got the funding, and the EPSRC has funded her work ever since in an unbroken fashion for over 2 decades. All he did was suggest she apply! She says “A small nudge is sometimes all it actually takes for you to see yourself in a different light.”.

Georgia thinks the most important thing a manager or colleague can do is “Just listen to me as an individual. Being really seen and heard has built trust that they have my best interests at heart and in turn, allows me to feel secure their advice is tailored to me.”

3.    Be the difference

Inspiration can come at any moment and be delivered in different ways. It can also land on people at different moments in their lives. For people in more senior roles, being generous with your time to connect with more junior colleagues or through outreach to schools or undergraduate programmes and have conversations with people from outside your usual group offers a two-way learning experience. I asked Ijeoma and Georgia about who had inspired them:

For Ijeoma, she told me: “In the past, eminent scientists did inspire me. I remember meeting James Black (Nobel laureate) and feeling how down to earth he was and he was very supportive when I organised a conference in Glasgow. He turned up and told us the story of some of the drugs he had discovered. Sitting in the audience I simply wanted to be him full stop.

Nowadays I’m very inspired when I see young people speaking confidently about their desire for a better future. I can’t tell you how happy I feel when I meet someone who has overcome real adversity and arrived at a prestigious university like UCL.”  

For Georgia, she told me “Work experience was the key that unlocked my STEM passion. There was a lady I met on work experience, who worked in science but realised it didn’t give her the satisfaction she wanted when she looked at her boss. Years later, I worked with her at her company as a buying agent for some of the most wealthy people in London. Her work ethic and attitude were some of my earliest inspirations of women leading in their industry. That, together with my mum, who instilled and developed a good work ethic in me, made me realise good work ethic and a passion can really take you to great places. 

For Mel, it was her parents. Her mother, an IT professional, and her dad working in aviation. She adds, “Today they continue to support me at Techwuman and offer their guidance and support whenever I need it. I watched Hidden Figures when the film was released and was so empowered by Katherine Johnson showing how powerful it is to be a role model for females and people from BAME groups and how to change the workplace for the better.”  

Mel is passionate about being a role model, not just for engineers, but for other young entrepreneurs, females from ethnic minorities and the next generation. Showing that engineering can be a viable career choice for all.

Mel Ahmed, chartered design engineer, entrepreneur and ambassador.


Dr Jan Peters MBE is a diversity and inclusion thought leader, speaker, and author with experience in STEM research, manufacturing, and policy.

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