Robinson College's Women in Science Festival students at the Department of Materials Science & Metallurgy

Every year, 200,000 young people participate in access initiatives run by the University and the Colleges. This programme includes a wide range of opportunities specifically designed to inspire young women and to foster greater participation in certain areas of Higher Education and work.

"We promote the visibility of women in science and show that it can be an excellent career path for women as well as men".

Sarah Morgan & Hannah Stern, Cavendish Inspiring Women

Gender diversity, both in education and the economy, is now the subject of serious debate among policy-makers, academics, teachers and employers. Of particular concern is the fact that female participation in STEM subjects – science, technology, engineering and mathematics – suffers from a “leaky pipeline”. Up to the age of sixteen, as many girls as boys study maths and science, but thereafter a gap opens up which continues to widen at each step of the career ladder.

For this reason, many of Cambridge’s access events aim to encourage female students, particularly those in state sector schools and colleges, to continue studying mathematics and science at school and to apply for university courses in which women are currently under-represented across the UK.

Recent events have included


Robinson College’s Women in Science Festival

Robinson welcomed 124 female Sixth Formers from across the country to its inaugural Women in Science Festival, an entirely free one day event aimed at encouraging more young women to pursue further study in science and maths related disciplines.

The event opened with five talks by female scientists currently making waves at Cambridge. Dr Liisa Van Vliet spoke about microscopy, Dr Teresa Tiffert on Malaria and Anaemias and Dr Athina Markaki on Cardiovascular stents.  They were followed by two PhD students – Joana Grah discussed the use of Mathematical Image Analysis in Cancer Research while Diana Vasile revealed the computer science behind mobile devices.

Twelve courageous Sixth Formers then took to the stage to give five minute presentations about a STEM topic which they feel passionate about, earning feedback from an expert judging panel. After taking lunch at Robinson with College Fellows and students, the participants visited the Department of Materials Science & Metallurgy to experience University-level laboratory work. The most popular experiment involved measuring the temperature-dependent properties of rubber, with the participants using liquid nitrogen to cool their samples.

Robinson’s Dr Rachel Oliver, a Reader in Materials Science, said "We believe that many young women have the potential to make a real contribution in STEM subjects, but they are sometimes put off by misconceptions about science and engineering, or about the people who work in those fields.  We wanted to give Sixth Formers the opportunity to meet real female scientists and engineers and be inspired by the work they do.” 

Gonville & Caius College’s Women in Economics Day

Highly respected female economists including Dame Kate Barker, a former member of the Bank of England’s Monetary Policy Committee, and Dr Vicky Pryce, former joint head of the Government Economic Service, gave 100 Sixth Form girls a clear message: “Economics Needs You!” 

Women currently represent about 36% of applications to study economics at Cambridge and receive 37 per cent of offers. This is significantly higher than the UK average. A recent study by the University of Southampton found that women account for just 27 per cent of economics students in the UK, despite making up 57 per cent of the overall undergraduate population. Nevertheless, the Collegiate University would like to see more women studying Maths in Sixth Form and going on to apply to study economics.

The event at Gonville & Caius was run by Dr Victoria Bateman, Director of Studies for Economics at the College. Dr Bateman told a packed auditorium "Sadly, the lack of female representation in the subject has meant that economists have built a model of the economy which tells only half of the story. The future of economics – and the economy – is in your hands.”

The students received a welcome message from Carolyn Fairbairn, who gained a double first in economics at Caius and becomes the CBI’s first female director general in November 2015. Ms Fairbairn said economics was too often seen as “a science that only an elite of often male experts are qualified to comment on” and argued that women’s views were vital if economic policy were to respond to the needs of both genders.


Corpus Christi College’s STEM Summer School for Years 12 & 13

For the first time, Corpus Christi ran a three-day STEM event for 16-18 year old female students from across the country. 86 schools, the vast majority state sector, selected one hundred participants to take part in recognition of their impressive academic achievements and their passion for one or more of the STEM subjects.

The event combined hands-on activities, departmental visits and lectures on a diverse range of topics, from the chemistry of water to a programming language for blind children. It also included a practical advice session on STEM interviews at Cambridge.

Unforgettable words of encouragement came from Dame Athene Donald, Professor of Experimental Physics and Master of Churchill College, Cambridge, who spoke of the importance of perseverance and the increasingly interdisciplinary nature of the sciences.

Event leader, Dr Sophie Zadeh, Fellow in Psychology at Corpus Christi College, said “We’re thrilled that we’ve been able to offer these young women the opportunity to experience Cambridge but we want to ensure the impact of this event reaches far beyond the attendees. We want to help close the gender gap in STEM across the country.”

More information and photos here.

Newnham College’s Joan Clarke Maths Residential

Joan Clarke achieved a double first in Mathematics at Newnham in the 1930s and went on to play a crucial role in the Second World War by helping to crack the Enigma machine at Bletchley Park.

Named in her honour, Newnham’s inaugural maths residential gave thirty Year 13s studying Further Maths at state schools an inspiring taste of STEM subjects at Cambridge.

The programme included lectures, seminars, discussion groups, practical work and social activities, as well as the opportunity to meet current staff and students.

This entirely free event was made possible by alumnae donations made specifically to encourage more women from state schools to apply for science and maths based courses at Cambridge.

Dr Sam Lucy, Newnham’s Admissions Tutor, said: “This initiative gives very bright young women the information they need to make competitive applications to Cambridge and other top universities, while also helping them to explore the different types of maths taught on STEM courses."

More information here.

Murray Edwards College’s ‘She Talks Science

Murray Edwards recently set up ‘She Talks Science’, a blog designed to give young women the opportunity to share their passion for science with each other and with Murray Edwards students, Fellows and alumnae. Previous posts have included thoughts on snowflakes, micro-seismic activity and an inspiring introduction from the College’s President, Barbara Stocking.

The College’s annual Pathways to Success conference introduces high-achieving Year 12s from schools across the UK to students, graduates and staff at Murray Edwards. The event aims to encourage young women to expand their horizons and to embrace aiming high. Previous guest speakers have included high-flying alumnae who studied science at the College.

Cavendish Inspiring Women (CiW)

CiW was set up by two Cambridge PhD students, Sarah Morgan and Hannah Stern, together with Dr Elsa Couderc, a former post-doc at the University, and Dr Atefey Amin, a research associate, to encourage young women to pursue careers in science, or to use their science training to further other career paths. 

CiW introduces promising teenage scientists to inspiring role models by holding regular speaker events at the Cavendish Laboratory. Previous speakers have included Dr Sarah Bohndiek, a lecturer in biomedical physics and a junior research group leader at the Cancer Research UK Cambridge Institute. CiW also provides advice via its website and recently published ‘What is so Exciting About Physics?’ a free booklet aimed at secondary school students featuring insights from several female scientists.

Hannah and Sarah said “We both really enjoy studying science and haven't felt disadvantaged by being women. But we have noticed how few female scientists there are in comparison to men and we know that the way society portrays scientists can sometimes be very stereotypical. So we started Cavendish Inspiring Women to promote the visibility of women in science and to show that it can be an excellent career path for women as well as men.”

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