The XX Factor – addressing gender bias issues and science careers

The XX Factor – addressing gender bias issues and science careers

As part of the Women in Science festival, over 90 p6/7 (10-11 year old) children from 3 local schools visited the University of St Andrews to listen to and meet female science PhD students through an event called the XX Factor. The purpose of this event was to encourage children from an early age to consider scientific careers, and to be aware of the breadth of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) subjects. In addition, the event was to provide the children (boys and girls) with positive female role models who can inspire and showcase that science is just as relevant for females as it is for males.

How the event worked

The XX Factor split into two parts. In the morning I and 8 other PhD students from the Schools of Biology, Chemistry and Physics gave 3 minute talks about our research and why we do what we do. This part of the event was structured as a competition, with the children voting for their favourite talk at the end. There was a fascinating array of topics covered, including organic chemists manipulating matter, neuroscientists studying how the brain remembers things, physicists investigating the atomic make up of material, and of course a few biologists ranging from laboratory based to fieldwork based biologists. I spoke briefly about my research in biodiversity, my experience of fieldwork, and that I was able to research while being dyslexic. This last point about learning disabilities was particularly important to me as I wanted the children to know that such disabilities don’t have to hold them back.

All the PhD researchers on stage after giving our talks

All the PhD researchers on stage after giving our talks

In the afternoon there was a “meet the researchers” mini careers event, where children got the chance to ask lots of questions to the morning speakers and a few additional PhD students. The questions I was asked varied a lot. Most groups of children began with what I consider to be tester questions like “what is your favourite colour” or “what kind of animal would you be”. After that I was surprised by the breadth and depth of the questions I was asked. I was asked questions on what I do on a daily basis, how much support I got to become a PhD student, and why I chose to research. I also had many of the children telling me that they were dyslexic, or that someone close to them was dyslexic.

Me answering questions of the children participating in the mini careers event in the afternoon

Me answering questions of the children participating in the mini careers event in the afternoon

Was the event a success?

We got lots of positive feedback from both the children and teachers. The children had a wider idea of what a scientist is, as demonstrated by before and after surveys on what a scientist was. Word-clouds of the language used to describe what a scientist is before and after were made, and showed a distinct increase in words after. The children also enjoyed meeting “real scientists”, and discussing their work.

Children chatting with one of the PhD speakers during the mini careers event

Children chatting with one of the PhD speakers during the mini careers event

Follow up event

One of the schools who took part in the XX Factor, Thornton Primary School, was shortlisted for the Education Scotland STEM teaching award. I, along with two other XX Factor participants and Dr Mhairi Stewart (University of St Andrews Outreach Officer), visited Thornton PS on the day the judges were at the school to support their application for the award. We discussed the event with the judges and pupils of Thornton PS who had attended the XX Factor. As an addition to this, we staged a mini XX Factor with pupils from the year below those who had originally participated in the XX Factor. It was great to hear how much the children had enjoyed the XX Factor, and that the event was considered successful enough as to be a significant part of why Thornton PS had been shortlisted for the award.

Faith Jones
Postgraduate Trainee