Leia Zhao at RA Butler Academy, Saffron Walden. Image Credit: David Levene/Wellcome Sanger Institute

Categories: Sanger Life20 June 20226.1 min read

Smashing stereotypes in science

In 2019, a report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) showed that by age seven, children’s career ambitions are limited, due to ingrained stereotyping about social background, gender and race¹. By this age, children have begun making assumptions about who will enter different types of work – and there is little change in attitude between the ages of seven and 17.

As someone with young children, I can testify that many things in life become ‘for girls’ or ‘for boys’ very early on, and so the report’s findings are depressingly unsurprising. Francesca Gale and her team have had similar experiences, both personally and professionally in their work with schools across the UK as part of Wellcome Connecting Sciences’ Science Engagement and Enrichment programme. The publication of the OECD report coincided with new projects for the team, designed to change things; Science for Everyone, and Adopt a Scientist.

Science for Everyone

Science for Everyone is aimed at helping primary school teachers to mitigate against unconscious bias related to science and science careers. It tackles bias around race, gender and class.

Our assumptions about the world stem from unconscious biases, which develop and are maintained from our culture, our experiences, and from the media all around us. For example, the gender stereotype of females as caregivers or homemakers emerges and persists as we are repeatedly exposed to experiences and images where this is the case – in adverts, the news, in films, on social media, in books and at home. The list goes on. These messages unconsciously reinforce our assumptions, and this influences our behaviour and judgements. In science, if media coverage and our experiences are of white males in lab coats, then this can reinforce gender and racial stereotypes around science careers.

“It is so important, by year three or four, for children to see that actually science is all around them, it relates to their everyday lives and that science is for everyone,” says Francesca.

Her thoughts chime with those of Andreas Schleicher, the OECD's director of education and skills. Speaking about the OECD report in 2019, he said: "You can't be what you can't see. We're not saying seven-year-olds have to choose their careers now but we must fight to keep their horizons open."

Francesca and her team started working on Science for Everyone project with Dr Pete Jones, a psychologist who delivers unconscious bias in recruitment training at the Sanger Institute.

Pete has been working in equality and implicit bias for over 20 years, with the last 10 dedicated to improving the situation. He stressed that it is not someone’s fault they are biased – everyone is.

“We have to make people aware that they, and everyone, have these biases. It can be uncomfortable to recognise it in yourself – but people need to squirm in their seats a little bit. And we want people to know that they can do something about it. A ten second pause might be all it takes to consider why you are treating someone a certain way. But it’s not just about individual responsibility – it’s about the structures, too. We can’t have workplaces or organisations where biases can flourish. We have to change structures and practices too,” says Pete.

To help teachers and schools recognise and then limit the effects of unconscious bias, the team has developed a de-biasing 10 point checklist. It was created together with teachers and is prioritised, with those that can make the most difference at the top.

It covers things like ensuring that visitors to schools who demonstrate science are from diverse backgrounds. It also covers showing that science itself is varied too – it’s not just about explosions, for example.

Adopt a Scientist

The Adopt a Scientist programme is tackling assumptions and stereotypes in a different way, by directly connecting primary schools with researchers. As part of the Science Across the City initiative in Stoke-on-Trent, six primary schools have ‘adopted’ researchers from the Sanger Institute and EMBL’s European Bioinformatics Institute (EMBL-EBI). They recently met for the first time.

“It was wonderful to communicate and engage with the students, and answer random questions like, ‘Why is T Rex called a T Rex?’ but also questions on what it takes to become a scientist.

“There is a common attitude among students that science is too hard and that scientists need to know everything. It was extremely rewarding to go on this trip as a female Asian scientist and talk to the students about my background, how I didn’t have straight A* for my A levels, and the route I took to land a role at EBI.”

Dr Aleena Mushtaq, Outreach Officer at EMBL-EBI

“I think it’s important to show children that there are different domains of science. Some kids love nature, some love computers – there are so many different professions open to them.

“I think it’s true that if you can’t explain your research to a 10 year old, then you don’t understand it yourself.”

Dr Anu Shivalikanjli, Postdoctoral Researcher at EMBL-EBI

“I am passionate about the secrets of the universe that science uncovers every day, and to share these secrets with curious kids who are eager to learn is even more beautiful.”

“The progress of science requires collective input from everyone in society. Challenging stereotypes is essential to rebrand science and to make it appeal to the wider community, including underrepresented populations. It will also enable new collaborations to form across cultural and other societal barriers, and inspire an influx of new perspectives, both of which accelerate scientific progress and benefit us all.”

Martin Wagah, PhD student at the Sanger Institute

“It was such a fun trip, I loved talking with the kids; they were fascinated by the skull I showed them, and ancient DNA. A lot of kids never see scientists in person. They might imagine scientists as old white dudes with beards, so it’s good to show them that’s not the case.”

Dr Petra Korlevic, Staff Scientist the Sanger Institute

“The whole class was really knowledgeable, and keen to learn about DNA. They quite quickly figured out that pizza is made from living things and therefore has DNA. DNA in poop was another popular topic!

“My activities were based around biodiversity and insects and I think by the end of the session the whole class was a little bit more obsessed with insects.”

Leia Zhao, Research Assistant at the Sanger Institute

“We want to smash stereotypes. We want to show that science is for girls, science is for people of colour, science is for everyone, no matter what.”

Francesca Gale.

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