Hear from Eleonora Svanberg, Masters Student at the University of Cambridge & Woman in STEM
“I am not sure it’s the best idea for you to take that class. Some people are mathematical, and some are not. Maybe you should do something else?” – Eleanora’s high school principal when she wanted to take a more advanced mathematics class.
My name is Eleonora, and I’m studying for a Master’s in Applied Mathematics at the University of Cambridge. Prior to this, I did a Bachelor’s in Physics at Stockholm University. I have always enjoyed studying mathematics, probably because I was fortunate enough to have a dad who loved talking about it. I’m currently one of around 15% of women in my program, and during my bachelor’s, I was often the only girl in the lecture halls. So how did I end up here? It is pretty simple, I met a physics researcher, Giulia, once as a teenager. She also did show dance and talked about how much she enjoyed working with what she did (analysing physics data), and I remember that it felt like if she could do that, so could I.
When I tell people what I study, I often get a response of, “wow, that could never be me” or “oh, so you’re smart”, which is not the worst thing to get told. However, this says a lot about society’s view of people studying mathematical subjects. Many cannot see themselves studying STEM, and that is something that happens very early. For example, a study by the Royal Swedish Academy of Engineering Sciences (IVA) showed that the number of girls interested in technology after year 5 decreased significantly more than that of boys, leading to girls being underrepresented in all tech programs for secondary schools in Sweden.
Written by Eleonora Svanberg, Masters Student, University of Cambridge
So what can be done about this?
Good starting points are:
1) Relatable role models and 2) Broadening the image of STEM.
In my second year in secondary school, after receiving that comment from my principal, a few friends and I founded a non-profit organisation called Girls in STEM. We had all received comments or experienced some form of resistance in our journey to do STEM and wanted to do something about it. It is now one of the largest science organisations for young people in Sweden, and I work daily to inspire the next generation to pursue STEM. One key thing we work a lot with is to connect members with relatable young role models. We broaden the image of who can do science. They are not some noble prize winner you could never compare yourself with. Instead, they are show dancing people that might have failed an exam or two but have continued studying and eventually become good at their subjects — and if they can, so could you.
Moreover, research by Ulrika Sultan, PhD student at Linköping University, shows that a big problem in getting girls interested in STEM is how we present it to them. To quote her: “Girls often have a larger societal perspective on technology. They think in terms of larger systems. Boys will build a pump. But girls with think: ‘How can we secure the water supply?'”. In other words, connecting the bigger picture seems more critical to get girls interested in STEM — it’s not just writing a random line of code. It can lead to something bigger, which should be highlighted if you want to reach out to more girls.
In recent years I have been using my social media and giving talks at schools and companies to start a conversation about the feeling of not belonging in STEM (studies have shown that girls do better in science if they are aware of the existence of external stereotypes). Most of the time, it has been enough for me to show them that I am just an ordinary human who likes studying mathematics, even though I have struggled with it. In fact, my most popular talk is “Studying physics while feeling stupid” to break the stereotype of being a genius by studying physics. I started doing this as I realised not everyone might have the opportunity to meet someone like Giulia, and social media is a great way to reach the younger generation.
As a result, I daily get DMs from young girls worldwide asking me about STEM and telling me they chose a STEM degree because of me. I am thrilled to be able to make an impact on this many people, and it is something I will continue doing throughout my whole career.
There is much to be done to reduce the gender gap within STEM, but we are getting there! If you want to stay updated on the work I am doing, you can check out my social media.
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