Speaking at the 18th International Conference of Women Engineers and Scientists 3M’s global chief science advocate, Dr Jayshree Seth, said that there has never been a better time to talk about advancing women in STEM than right now.
The conference, held from 1-3 September, was hosted jointly by the International Network of Women Engineers and Scientists (INWES) and Warwick University and structured around the theme of Global Humanitarian Challenges, with a focus on the role of education and training for women to help tackle societal issues.
INWES is a global network of organisations of women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM), reaching more than 60 countries worldwide. The virtual event attracted 500 engineers and scientists who had the chance to network with colleagues in business, academia and government.
Jayshree was invited to speak about the global perception of science, sharing an overview of the 3M State of Science Index (SOSI) and her passion for encouraging diversity in STEM.
She said: “I want to tell the next generation of STEM students that you don’t have to be what people expect from a scientist. The more stereotypes we break the better outcomes we will have as we invite more people into the world of science. We need every diverse perspective in order to solve world problems.”
Jayshree said that now was the perfect time to talk about the topic as we slowly emerge from a challenging year and a half where we have faced the same existential crisis, confronted the same fears and awaited the same gift of science, in the form of the Covid-19 vaccine.
She said: “There is no doubt in my mind that science will vanquish the pandemic and there is now a renewed focus on STEM because of it. Science and scientists will have a profound impact in shaping the future; but less than a third of STEM roles are currently held by women, so we need to do more to overcome the problem of female under-representation by keeping girls and women engaged in STEM.
“We need more diverse role models. We also need to change the way STEM is taught and the way that science is portrayed in the media. I know from my own experience as a parent how important context is. The content of a message was sufficient to motivate my son, but girls need to see things through a different lens and we needed to inspire our daughter with context.”
Jayshree also cited results from Draw-A-Scientist social experiment. “At the age of six girls draw 70 per cent of scientists as women, but by the time they are 16, they draw around 75 per cent of scientists as men. This flips at around the age of 10 and much research has been carried out to understand why girls and young women don’t see themselves, or even their gender, in science careers.
“Many factors contribute to this at an individual, group, cultural and societal level and studies show that a less pronounced masculine image of science itself has the potential to increase the likelihood of STEM career aspirations for girls.”
Not the science type
When she was young, Jayshree said that she wouldn’t have opted for STEM as a career for herself, thinking that she was not the science type. She said: “I was fortunate that my unique circumstances meant that I pursued it nonetheless and here I am today – a corporate scientist, the highest level at 3M, with 72 patents and many products and technologies that I’ve been a part of developing. I’m also the company’s first ever global chief science advocate. So, our paths can be as diverse as we all are, and science is better off for that diversity.”
Jayshree said that she was honoured to be featured in 3M’s Not the science type docuseries, created to foster conversations around shattering stereotypes in science.
She said: “This shows that we can all be the science type. It doesn’t matter about your race, ethnicity, age or nationality – you can blaze trails, you can pursue your passions, you can bring in your interests and shape your career. Your potential is exponential.”
Changing global perceptions of science
Speaking about SOSI, 3M’s annual global survey of more than 14,000 people in 14 countries to uncover what people think of science, Jayshree said this shows that global perceptions of science have gone from scepticism to trust in science and hope for the future.
She said: “At 3M we recognise the importance of science and use it every day to improve the lives of people around the world. We are committed to creating a more positive world with science, aligned with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. But what do others around the world think about science? Do they see, feel and appreciate the impact of science the same way we do?”
The first SOSI survey was carried out in 2017 and the results, launched in 2018, were thought-provoking.
Jayshree said: “Four out of 10 people surveyed globally said that if science didn’t exist their lives wouldn’t be that different. This was quite unbelievable as they were taking the survey on their laptops or mobile phones. This showed us that science is invisible, under-appreciated and taken for granted.”
By 2020, the global perception of science had changed, with the world more united in the belief that we should value and follow science. The results showed that 82 per cent of respondents believe that there are negative consequences to society if people do not value science and 92 per cent said that people’s actions should follow scientific evidence and advice to contain the spread of Covid-19.
Jayshree said: “People are now trusting scientists and science-based organisations which was good to see, particularly with the level of misinformation and disinformation on social media. In 2021, the themes from 2020 continued, with science scepticism at its lowest level since tracking began and trust at the highest level as we started to turn the corner on the pandemic with vaccines and countries opening up.”
Unlocking the secrets to a sustainable future
Hope was the defining sentiment around science in the 2021 survey, with 89 per cent of respondents saying that science gives them hope for the future.
“Science gives us hope for our future, hope for the planet and hope for the next generation pursuing STEM. Scientists and medical professionals have inspired a new generation to pursue a STEM education and career, but a lack of diversity and inclusion in STEM has had a big impact on the talent pipeline of companies like 3M. We need all the diversity of thought and experience we can get in order to creatively solve the challenges we face and unlock the secrets to a sustainable future.”
In her own attempt to make 2020 count, Jayshree has published a collection of her essays in a book: The Heart of Science: Engineering, Footprints, Fingerprints and Imprints. All proceeds from sales of the book will go towards funding scholarships for minority women in STEM, to be administered by the Society of Women Engineers.