We were intrigued when molecular biologist Kerry Spiers-Fitzgerald described herself as a STEMinist. It’s no secret that the world of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (or STEM), has historically been a male-dominated field of work. However, positive change is on the way.

In this week’s blog, we talk to a molecular biologist, registered scientist and member of The Institute of Science and Technology, about her experiences as a woman in science. As a passionate STEMinist and an advocate for equality in her field, she hopes that her story will shed some light on the challenges faced as more women enter the world of STEM.

As today is International Women's Day and we celebrate women all over the world, we couldn't think of a better time to share our conversation with a female molecular biologist...

Tell us about your work

I work in a biobank, it’s the only biobank of Chlamydia strains in the world! This kind of research is really underfunded because Chlamydia isn’t life-threatening, but it can affect a woman’s fertility. In developing countries, it’s a very big contributor to blindness and respiratory disease as it doesn’t only attack reproductive organs it can also attack the lymphatic system. It’s a health crisis! The aim of the research is to eventually develop a vaccination. I am one of only 50 people in the world who is trained in this specific scientific skill. 

What is a STEMinist? 

A STEMinist is someone who believes in gender equality in Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths.

I totally identify as a STEMinist. I’m incredibly passionate about bringing more diversity into the field of STEM, especially Science. 

There is definitely an imbalance of males and females in science particularly when you’re talking about PIs (principal investigators) and their research group leaders. We have some incredibly clever women who are gutsy enough to make themselves seen and heard in the sea of gender bias and systemic attitude.

There are more people who identify as females coming through, our Dean at the moment in the faculty of medicine is a woman. There are many more women taking on senior management positions. They are gradually trickling through which is so great to see. But yesterday I sat in on a large meeting and there were 8 men and 2 women. The infrastructure is there. Maybe it’s hard to get into a career that’s historically gender biased but change is happening.

When it comes to senior management positions a lot of women want/have to concentrate on their families. I don’t think you should have to give up looking after your family and pursuing what you loveWhere I work they are exceptionally supportive of women taking maternity leave, they are very forward-thinking in supporting female-identifying people. It’s a positive movement towards change. 

According to the Department of Education, between 2010 and 2019, the UK saw a 31% increase in female-identifying people taking STEM A-Levels. * 

The Only Girl In The Room 

I took a few sciences in college, before going to university, including physics: I figured why not try all the sciences to see which one I liked the most. Initially, I intended on doing the full two years of physics but embarrassingly I only completed one. It wasn’t that I didn’t like the subjects, it was because, at the time, I felt intimidated by the environment.

I remember walking into my first physics lecture, I’ll never forget it.  I had trouble finding the room number and eventually walked in only to find a room full of 20+ men turning to watch my late arrival. They looked at me with a surprising ‘It’s a girl!’ gaze. It was really intimidating – being an awkward teenager and arguably an awkward adult, I didn’t really know how to talk to boys and I’m pretty sure they didn’t know how to talk to me. No one wanted to be my lab partner. 

Too Many Gender Stereotypes

There are too many gender stereotypes and people do still have biases. When I took physics, I told myself I didn’t care about gender biases and that I was going to be a scientist. I knew what I loved and wanted to pursue it. But when you’re younger and in college, there is a certain social aspect you want to experience, meet new people, make new friends, and find more out about yourself… but it was incredibly intimidating to knowingly walk into a male-dominated field. 

Existing Prejudices

I love science and my job and although I work in a nurturing and inclusive environment I still have to face existing prejudices.  

One thing I have to deal with a lot is 'mansplaining', particularly with the people who service the machines I look after (machines that are pretty much my life's work). I am yet to meet a female service engineer and I've been working there for 15 years. It's such a shame and about time that more females step into all streams of STEM careers.

Occasionally it's assumed that I am a sectary and get asked where my manager is, when in fact I am the manager and a specialist in the field. 

What advice would you give to a female-identifying person looking to get into a STEM career? 

My advice would be to persevere. There are gender stereotypes but within there’s very much this feeling of things moving forward and progressing.

Universities now are very much encouraged to be involved with Athena Swan – which is very much about creating inclusivity for women. Where I work they are at the silver level which is amazing and they’re working towards their gold.

Equality, Diversity and Inclusion

We’re heavily involved in Athena swan and EDI (Equality, Diversity and Inclusion) and this is definitely the hot property at the moment. This is where academia wants to go, they want women to come into STEM. It’s an incredible time to move into STEM because your voices are being heard and they want you to be seen. You will come up against some stereotypes and it’s incredibly satisfying when you prove them wrong. It can be frustrating but change is here and happening.

There’s unconscious bias, and you have to have a thick skin, but if you are passionate and you love it, and there’s every reason to love it, you get to move in the direction you want to move in. If there’s something you’re really interested in you get to move and grow into these areas, and the more passionate you are about things, the more opportunities you tend to make for yourself. There is so much opportunity for growth and when it comes to the actual science, things are definitely, definitely moving in the right direction.  

When it comes to opportunities in the research field, there are definitely doors open at the moment and I think there are only going to be more doors. 

If an apprenticeship in your field of work was available when you were younger would you apply for it?

I think so. It's an incredible opportunity. There were so many people who were graduating when I was in uni – the market was saturated with graduates – you could have a Degree or a Masters and end up in something completely different like retail.

Apprenticeships weren’t really available then, it was more for trade or to be self-employed. It wasn’t the gateway to academia like it is now! Now the opportunities now are incredible. Where I work, we're really eager to pass on our knowledge and help inspire the generation into the scientific field. We're really excited about it! 

If you're inspired to take a step into the exciting world of STEM why not check out our current vacancies here.

Our thanks to Kerry Spiers-Fitzgerald MIScT RSci for taking the time to share her passion with us.  

* References; -

Women in STEM Week 2021: How we’re empowering the next generation - The Education Hub (blog.gov.uk)

Apprenticeships work experience