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  • The Awe-Inspirer: Dr Jessica Wade

    Award-winning physicist, equality campaigner, boundary-pusher and troublemaker – meet the scientist on a mission.

    As befits a woman who is almost mind-bogglingly impressive, Dr Jessica Wade is remarkably tricky to pin down.

    This is not because she is working feverishly in a lab on her area of expertise. (Controlling molecular orientation and nanoanalysis of organic semiconductors; in layman’s terms, the field of plastic electronics – LEDs to you and me). Instead – the week our interview is scheduled – she is on near-constant call to media outlets, from Radio 4’s Today programme to pretty much every UK broadsheet.

    The reason for this is as follows: at a Cern workshop in Geneva, Professor Alessandro Strumia, a senior researcher, delivered a presentation in which he said physics was “invented and built by men”. He went on to talk about the “discrimination” that men have faced – detailing how he had lost out to a female professor who had less citations than he did. “He basically said that women who weren’t as good were given positions and money because of their gender.” It was quite the tour de force – one which has now seen him suspended by Cern.

    We’re speaking on the phone, but you can almost hear Dr Wade roll her eyes with exasperation. For not only does she hold a remarkable academic record, she’s also a vocal campaigner for gender equality in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (the STEM subjects). It’s not just saying all the right things, either: she’s actively recruiting women to science and showcases the achievements of women in science, one Wikipedia profile at a time. (More of all of this later)

    “It’s extraordinary,” marvels Wade. “You have a professor telling malleable young minds that they’re intellectually inferior and they only got into science because of tokenism. And he’s one of the gatekeepers! He is directly involved with training, making decisions about people and allocating grants. Senior academics get away with this weird bullying and manipulation because the junior people aren’t in a position to speak up.”

    As recent events in other industries have also revealed, the more you dig, the more you realise how entrenched these attitudes are. Strumia’s comments are, Wade suggests, the tip of the iceberg. “Even more frightening is how many other people broadly agreed that these opinions about women in science are commonplace. Think of Marie Curie who won the Nobel Prize at a time where women couldn’t vote, or own property, or graduate from University – how many barriers she had to overcome. Today, you think we’ve got equality, but this shows how superficial it is and how deeply embedded these problems are.”

    Even a fleeting glance at the statistics confirms it: in the UK, only 21% of A-level physics students and less than 9% of engineers are women. And yet the government and businesses are investing millions into encouraging young women into STEM? Where are we going wrong? And what can we do about it?

    Wade is the embodiment of ‘deeds before words’. She’s on a mission to debunk the stereotypes. Girls routinely outperform boys in STEM subjects, but lack the confidence to pursue careers as scientists. Wade says she wasn’t conscious of any barriers, initially. The daughter of two doctors, she grew up in an encouraging household, and attended an all-girls' school before gaining her place at Imperial College London. However, she adds, “For my whole life, I just believed that ‘I’m a girl. I’ll be better with people. Men are more manual.’ It wasn’t until I was 21 that I realised I’d spent a lot of time being quiet, not asking questions, surrounded by groups of men”.

    It was a book which “changed her life” – and, in just one example of her activism, she aims to get a copy into every  state secondary school in the country. The crowdfunded campaign has already smashed its target – and supporters include Daniel Radcliffe, who calls the book “mind-blowing” and Wade “one of the smartest people I know”. (They are childhood friends.)

    The book in question is Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong and the New Science. That’s Rewriting the Story by Angela Saini. Saini turns an engineer’s penetrating eye on the origin of the stereotypes – and debunks them with data. In short: they’re societal, not biological. “Historically, scientists have been determined to show men and women are different. But scientists have mainly been men – because they have the power and privilege. When Darwin contended that women were intellectually inferior – he made the mistake of thinking it was biological in origin. When you give women a chance they run, they score, and they win Nobel Prizes!”

    “This book gave me so much more confidence in who I was – and tapped into a phenomenal network of women all over the world who have been empowered by it. It makes us realise how many holes there are in our knowledge of the world because we’ve not had women asking questions for so long.”

    Yes, the same week women in science had their success ascribed to tokenism, two women won Nobel Prizes: Frances Arnold in chemistry and Donna Strickland in Wade’s own field, physics. “It’s what women all over the world needed.” 

    What else do they need? Wade talks about the money being “poured” into attempts to recruit women into science: money that is being spent on initiatives that aren’t “evidence-based” (one of the things which so horrified her about Strumia’s argument is that he “cherry-picked the data” – she is a scientist to her core) or – worse – perpetuate the stereotypes. She shudders at the memory of a campaign with the teeth-grinding title ‘Science! It’s a Girl Thing!’ in which a video featured girls decoding the chemical make-up of nail varnish.

    Instead, she focuses on introducing positive role models. Hence Wade’s Wikipedia project – she is quite literally writing the history of women in science: creating Wikipedia pages for neglected female scientists, such as Jocelyn Bell Burnell, an astrophysicist in the 1960s who discovered the first radio pulsars – the magnitude of which was recognised by a Nobel Prize… which went to her supervisors! “But the very reason she did it was because she thought differently to them. There are so many under-represented women in science and we don’t celebrate them enough.” Wade aims to write one a day, “unless I get excited, and write more”. (It’s worth noting that Wade won the Institute of Physics’ Jocelyn Bell Burnell Medal and Prize, an early career award for female physicists. One great woman following in the footsteps of another.)

    Wade is, of course, a positive role model herself. She participates in international STEM events; works with the British Institute of Physics, delivering talks in schools (she visits at least one a week); is an ambassador for Imperial’s outreach programme and created the Imperial College Women in Physics community; organises events for girls on campus; nominates other women for prizes – she mentions her Imperial colleague, Dr Emma Chapman; blogs about physics at Making Physics Fun.

    As she sees it, she faces two big hurdles, both of which are entrenched in our education system. First, the age at which students have to specialise in the UK. “We ask students to choose what they’re going to do for the rest of their lives when they’re 14, 15 – and it’s ridiculously early to commit to a discipline, when you’re most influenced by the ridiculous gender stereotypes that persist”. Secondly, the lack of teachers who have a degree in a specialist subject – because we don’t pay them enough. Those expensive government initiatives to get women into science? “It’s merely putting a plaster on the education crisis.”

    Clearly, there’s some way to go – on all fronts. Wade relays how one of the Wikipedia editors opted to delete Donna Strickland’s page as she wasn’t ‘sufficiently notable’. “And then,” Wade deadpans, “she wins the Nobel Prize.” And yet, talking to Wade, hearing how impassioned she is about communicating the wonder of physics – “You almost take it for granted when you’re in it, but when you talk to young people, you realise how wondrous and incredible it is” – and her determination to make science a better place, you start to believe it is possible. Wade is selective about the teams she works with. “I have always tried to ensure that the labs and scientific sphere I work in are the best they can be. Collectively, we can change the culture of science from the inside.”

    She’s just as committed to extending her own scientific journey. “I think, ultimately, you want to extend the journey of whatever you’re working on – pushing it a tiny bit further. I feel a real commitment to leave the world a better place – and science a more empowering environment.”

    On the fundraising page for the Inferior book distribution campaign, Wade refers to a Guardian article that dubbed her “chief troublemaker at Imperial College”. What did she think when she first saw that tag? “I like it. I think when I leave science, it’s going to be in better place than it was when I found it – and that’s going to require some trouble."

    Follow Jess on Twitter @jesswade!