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What does a scientist look like?

Posted by on January 21, 2015

By Dr Catherine Ball, science policy advisor at the Society of Biology and Biochemical Society


If I asked you to think of a ‘typical scientist’ what would you imagine?

It is a sad truth that, although we have come a long way, stereotypes can still dominate.

As a policy advisor, part of my work focuses on promoting diversity and inclusion in the science community. This involves gathering information and data to understand which groups are under represented in which areas, providing support to these groups, and also looking at the practices of the Society itself to ensure that we are open and inclusive.

We’re committed to promoting greater workforce diversity and believe that there shouldn’t be a ‘typical’ scientist; it could be anyone. It could be you!

How diverse is the STEM workforce?

STEM means science, technology, engineering and mathematics. A number of groups, including women, ethnic minorities, those with disabilities and those of low socio-economic status, are under represented (1). For example, black and minority ethnic (BME) men are 28% less likely to work in STEM than their white counterparts and disabled students are 57% less likely to take up postgraduate STEM study than non-disabled students (2).

Gender inequalities in science often receive the most focus. Although the biosciences are typically thought of as the most gender-balanced of the sciences, this balance does not pervade to the top of the academic career ladder. In 2011-2012, 61% of bioscience postgraduate students were female while only 15% of professors were female (3). The point at which under representation occurs differs for different groups.

Why is a lack of diversity a problem?

There are compelling reasons for tackling the under-representation of different groups in STEM. The moral and ethical case for equality is one. There’s also a legal imperative; the Equality Act 2010 states that no group should be discriminated against based on a number of so-called ‘protected characteristics’. These include gender, race, disability and sexual orientation.

A strong economic case can be made on the basis of a growing skills gap in the UK, with demand for workers with STEM skills outstripping supply. In order for the science base to prosper, we need the best minds and the best teams. These must be drawn from as wide a pool as possible.

What’s more, the make-up of the UK population is changing. It’s estimated that around a quarter of primary school children are from a BME background. If this future generation does not go on to study science then the workforce will miss out of a wealth of potential talent.

What is the Society of Biology doing about diversity and inclusion?

We’re committed to ensuring equal opportunities in the life sciences, and support diversity throughout the pipeline; at school and higher education, in the workplace and training.

We recently became a Your Life signatory. Your Life aims to ensure the UK has the maths and science skills it needs to succeed in a competitive global economy. The campaign will do this by inspiring young people to study maths and science as a gateway to exciting and wide-ranging careers; and by helping employers recruit and retain talent, particularly women.

SOB_signingWe have signed the Science Council’s new Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Declaration. This requires that we ensure that these practices are embedded within the culture and procedures of our organisation. We have demonstrated that imbalances in membership can be corrected and have successfully increased the female representation within our Fellowship from 6.5% in 2007 to 21% in 2014.

We have also established a Returners to Bioscience group to examine the experiences of those who face difficulties in returning to a career in the biosciences after an extended break. This affects people across the spectrum of science careers including teachers, technicians and industrial scientists. Women are disproportionately affected by career breaks and taking time out to care for children is one of the most commonly cited reasons why women are under represented in senior positions.

Furthermore the Society is a signatory of the WISE (formerly UKRC) Chief Executive Officer Charter demonstrating our commitment to women in science, engineering and technology (SET), and sits on the committee of the Athena Forum, which provides strategic oversight of developments to address gender inequality in STEM. We are also a core member of the STEM Disability Committee, which supports the inclusion of disabled students and workers in science, technology, engineering and maths.

We need to make sure that the science community better reflects the UK population and is open to anyone who wishes to be a part of it.


  1. A Picture of the UK Scientific Workforce, Royal Society, 2014
  2. Improving Diversity in STEM, CaSE 2014
  3. 2011/2012 HESA data

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