The underrepresentation of women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) is evident across secondary education, higher education, and employment.

The effects of this manifest in lower retention rates among female students, and in 2020 a gender pay gap across STEM-related industries of 15.5%.[1]

This case study investigates the work of King’s College London in supporting and retaining female STEM students, why it’s important, and why it’s an ongoing challenge.

Representation in Numbers

Men are overrepresented in subjects such as Physics and Maths, across almost all types of schools and educational settings.[4]

Being in the minority has been found to impact a sense of belonging, which has a negative effect on attainment.[5]

In the rapidly growing NMES faculty at KCL, there are small but consistent increases in female students at all levels of study, however the numbers are still far off reaching parity.

In terms of ethnic diversity in NMES, between 55-63% of students identify as Black, Asian, or other minority ethnicity.

At a staff level, there is an overrepresentation of men seen at all levels. The closest level to parity is seen at lecturer level, being 34%, but the professorial level sees female representation decrease to just 20%.[3]

There is a similar trend seen between White staff and their Black and Ethnic Minority (BAME) counterparts. Men are still overrepresented at all levels, but it is closer to parity when looking at teachers, with the largest gap existing between professors.

KCL’s Commitment to Athena Swan

Since 2016, KCL has followed the Athena Swan self-assessment framework. Athena Swan is a charter that recognises excellence in an institution’s commitment to gender equality.

The ten key principles of the Athena Swan Charter are:

  • Acknowledgement that academia cannot reach its full potential unless it can benefit from the talents of all.
  • Commitment to advancing gender equality in academia, in particular, addressing the loss of women across the career pipeline and the absence of women from senior academic, professional and support roles.
  • Commitment to addressing unequal gender representation across academic disciplines and professional and support functions. In this there is a recognition of disciplinary differences including:
    • the relative underrepresentation of women in senior roles in arts, humanities, social sciences, business and law (AHSSBL)
    • the particularly high loss rate of women in science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine (STEMM)
  • Commitment to making and mainstreaming sustainable structural and cultural changes to advance gender equality, recognising that initiatives and actions that support individuals alone will not sufficiently advance equality.
  • Commitment to tackling the gender pay gap.
  • Commitment to removing the obstacles faced by women, in particular, at major points of career development and progression including the transition from PhD into a sustainable academic career.
  • Commitment to addressing the negative consequences of using short-term contracts for the retention and progression of staff in academia, particularly women.
  • Commitment to tackling the discriminatory treatment often experienced by trans people.
  • Acknowledgement that advancing gender equality demands commitment and action from all levels of the organisation and in particular active leadership from those in senior roles.
  • Understanding that all individuals have identities shaped by several different factors, so considering the intersection of gender and other factors wherever possible.[2]

All departments in the faculty of Natural, Mathematical and Engineering Sciences obtained an Athena Swan Bronze award in the academic year 2019-20. Physics excelled and managed to achieve a Silver award.

Whilst the framework encourages rigorous reviews of data and practices related to gender equality, some feel that it is not intersectional enough and the emphasis on gender negates other important considerations.[3]

Also, despite high staff engagement, the impact on the students’ learning environment has been limited.

Other Approaches to Encouraging Women in STEM

KCL also launched Women in Science Week, which celebrated the achievements of women in STEM through a series of events.

As part of the week, an internal speaker gave a personal account of their real and perceived barriers. They choose a member of the female academic staff to give the students a close, first-hand account of the realities they may face.

On Ada Lovelace day, a well-respected individual within either industry or academia is invited to give a talk. Previous years have seen academics Professor Barbara Shollock, and Professor Marika Taylor attend the event.

In 2016, the Women in STEM Society was created during an Ada Lovelace Day panel in response to a discussion about the student experience of underrepresentation.

The week also sees panel sessions take place, inviting students and staff to come together to discuss hot topics around gender equality and how best to encourage more women into STEM. 

In October 2020, Black in STEM ran a panel discussion with external speakers and alumni about their experiences of staying in STEM after graduating.

Before Women in STEM Week, the university launched the Women in Science Scholarship scheme. The scheme is for women who are passionate about science and service who will positively contribute to recruitment and support of women in science.

The scheme began in 2012 in response to the worryingly low percentage of female applications to NMES.

Offering £3000 to each successful applicant, the scheme also hoped to encourage female scientists from lower socioeconomic backgrounds to apply.

There are on average between 15-25 applications each year, which is still quite low. One reason given by Dr Helen Coulshed, Chair of NMES’ Equality Diversity and Inclusion committee at KCL were that there had been poor engagement between key stakeholders in admissions and marketing.

The highest percentage of applications comes from prospective Maths and Physics students, with most successful students being placed in either Physics or Informatics.

There have been no successful Engineering or Chemistry applications.

King’s College London also had a smaller grant of around £200 which is open to students and societies in NMES. The scheme ran from 2016-17 and received 23 applications.

Looking Ahead

To further the engagement of young women scientists, King’s’ has several ideas on how to tweak current schemes, and how to take them further.

To encourage applications to the Women in Science Fund, they are going to strip the AAA grade requirement for 2020/2021.

In 2021/2022, they plan to alert Admissions, Widening Participation and Student success teams so that eligible students are notified when they are considering applying to NMES.

They are also aiming to create a network of Women in Science Scheme scholars, setting expectations for the participation of women in science events in NMES.

The scheme will also be closed to chemistry students due to overrepresentation of women, which is currently between 60-70% female.[3]

To further the reach of the Gender Equality Fund, the NMES Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) committee are aiming to review the timings of the fund to coordinate better with departments and students.

Departmental EDI leaders will be alerted, along with NMES student societies and student experience managers, reminding societies to apply when the deadline is approaching.

The fund will also be renamed the ‘Inclusion Fund’ to support more intersectional projects.

Championing female students is important, but the bigger lesson from KCL is that making noise isn’t enough.

Constantly evaluating initiatives to see how they are directly impacting on incomes is just as important as setting up funds and schemes in the first place.

By consistently upping their efforts to make a more inclusive world, King’s has been able to get more women in STEM, and they are aiming to continue to tackle the disparity.

[1]ONS.gov.uk. 2020. Employment and Labour Market: Gender Pay Gap in the UK.

[2]Advance-HE.ac.uk. 2021. Equality Charters: Athena Swan Charter.

[3]Coulshed, Dr Helen. Chair of Natural Mathematical and Engineering Sciences Equality Diversity and Inclusion committee, King’s College London. Supporting and retaining Female STEM students.

[4]IOP.org. 2019. Closing Doors.

[5]NUS. 2021. Black, Asian and minority ethnic student attainment at UK universities: #closingthegap.

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Women are underrepresented in science, technology, engineering, and maths, across all levels of education and employment. King’s College London is taking a multi-faceted approach to change this.

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