Dorothy Hodgkin. Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin. Mary Anning. These women have made historic scientific advancements in many areas, such as the structure of insulin, the composition of stars, and the first complete fossil of a dinosaur.
Yet, the number of women in STEM-related fields remains significantly low. Thirty percent of researchers worldwide are women, according to statistics from the UN Scientific Education and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO).
Likewise, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres – citing UNESCO’s data – has said that women hold fewer senior positions than men at top universities. This has led to “a lower publication rate, less visibility, less recognition and, critically, less funding.”
The impact? Catastrophic. “Without more women in STEM, the world will continue to be designed by and for men, and the potential of girls and women will remain untapped,” said Guterres.
Fortunately, the best universities recognise this and are taking steps to fill this gap through programmes that offer support, inspiration and empowerment. Here’s how these five universities are leading the way for women in STEM:
Chalmers University of Technology
Education and research at the highest international level that also effectively benefits both people and the planet — this defines Chalmers University of Technology. Here, 3,100 employees and 10,000 students are contributing knowledge and technical solutions for a sustainable world.
Ranked #47 in Europe, Chalmers is where students earn degrees in automation and mechatronics, biotechnology and chemical engineering, civil engineering, computer engineering, and electrical engineering through experiential learning. They take on project-based assignments — focusing on applying theoretical knowledge to solve current and future problems.
To increase the proportion of women in its faculty, Chalmers launched the Gender Initiative for Excellence (Genie). Funded by the Chalmers University of Technology Foundation, this is the largest individual investment in gender equality made by any university.
Genie supports women in STEM through tailored action plans and direct support. Gender equality work includes analysing culture, systems and processes in each department. Genie’s management provides each department’s leadership group support and knowledge to create tailor-made activities to increase gender equality. Part of Genie’s budget is also directed to recruiting top female researchers.
Aside from this, a visiting faculty programme helps to improve gender balance in a department or division, provide role models and international contacts for students and faculty, as well as lay the foundation for excellent research.
In terms of partnerships, Genie supports the WISE-WWACQT Mentorship Programme, where mentors guide female PhD and postdoctoral students at the E2 Department and Wallenberg Centre for Quantum Technology and several bottom-up initiatives are funded to create an awareness and work locally to improve the work environment for all.
“What Chalmers University of Technology offers women is tolerance. When you’re a woman in STEM, you feel instinctively that you have a grain of tolerance to make mistakes compared to men. You think twice while answering a question so as not to see the gender bias in their eyes. Here, I’m not considered as “a woman engineer” but merely “an engineer”. It was such a simple, but heavy burden that Chalmers saved me”, says Turkish student Halime Selimoglu. She is studying the aerospace track of the MSc Mobility engineering.
Located in Belgium is a town where the famous Stella Artois beer comes from. Leuven is the country’s reigning brewing capital, but that’s not all it is known for. Nestled among the city’s beautiful architecture is KU Leuven. It is one of the oldest universities in Europe.
Look closely to find a university that boasts excellent academic programmes as well as many research and job opportunities.
“In a way, KU Leuven is a bit like Belgium itself. We are the underdog,” says Herman Van Rompuy, former Belgian Prime Minister, former president of the European Council and graduate of KU Leuven. “It’s probably not the first country or university to come to mind, but once you take a closer look you’ll notice that we have so much going for us.”
It is also the birthplace of top women scientists. Abigail Frost, a Postdoctoral Research Associate at KU Leuven, uses interferometry techniques to observe rare and distant stars in space. In particular, she investigates the interactions of groups of stars and how their form influences the universe.
Jinat Hossain, a PhD researcher, is exploring the concept of floating farms and what roles Bangladeshi women play in this innovative adaptation mechanism. Answers to this problem would help farmers in coastal Bangladesh, whose land remains flooded for almost half of the year.
University of Manchester
The University of Manchester’s School of Engineering develops engineering solutions to make ethical and sustainable improvements to society. They do this in two ways: excellent research and teaching in science-based engineering. Everyone is welcome to join.
“Our diverse body of engineering staff and students work together to help reshape the world, developing skills in everything from robotics, green processing and artificial intelligence, to healthcare technologies, low-carbon infrastructure and digital engineering,” says Professor Alice Larkin, head of the School of Engineering. “We are proud to foster a sense of curiosity, creativity and innovation to address real world problems.”
Four departments make up the school: the Department of Chemical Engineering and Analytical Science; the Department of Computer Science; the Department of Electrical and Electronic Engineering; and the Department of Mechanical, Aerospace and Civil Engineering.
Collectively, they collaborate with the university’s School of Natural Sciences to further develop engineers and scientists who are technically strong, analytically innovative, and creative.
Today, more female students are making waves in the school than ever before –– at both Undergraduate and postgraduate levels. They arrive at the university ready to be taught and nurtured by an inspiring group of female staffers when they aren’t benefiting from the School of Engineering’s award-winning peer-to-peer mentor scheme.
University of Bologna
Italy’s oldest university — and believed to be the western world’s oldest, too — is the University of Bologna (Unibo). Situated in one of the country’s most cosmopolitan and dynamic cities, Unibo has five campuses across the Emilia-Romagna region (Bologna, Ravenna, Cesena, Forlì, Rimini) and one in Buenos Aires, Argentina.
With 32 departments, 243 degree programmes, and 48 PhD routes, Unibo has firmly planted itself as a pioneer of innovation, cutting-edge research and teaching. It has pulled students around the globe, including Pakistani student Ayesha A. Malik, a Master in Electronic Engineering student who specialises in electronics for intelligent systems, big data and the internet of things.
“The course structure is vast, well defined, and the quality of education is exceptional,” she shares. “The knowledge I gained in the last year and a half of my stay at Unibo has prepared me to work on practical projects.”
Study here to join 87,590 students from around the world and expert faculty members to work towards one mission: transmit knowledge, experiment with techniques, and develop the ideas that will address the transformations of our time.
Unibo cares about the financial well-being of its students too. That is why the university offers many types of study grants and scholarships for all levels of programmes, with some of these open to both local and international students and others specifically intended for international students only.
University of Surrey
Nestled in Guildford, Surrey and close to London is the University of Surrey, where students are highly satisfied and programmes rank in the top 20 in league tables.
These include the Chemistry BSc (Hons) or MChem degree and the Chemical Engineering BEng (Hons) or MEng degree. Offered by the small and friendly School of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering, the programmes boast one of the best staff-to-student ratios in the country, with 92.5% of students saying that they are satisfied with their course in the National Student Survey 2022.
Add excellent facilities like their unique 1.7 million pounds Fluor pilot plant, the Personal Tutor Scheme with timetabled 1-1 time every week, and a “learning by doing” approach with their pioneer training year, Surrey students have all they need to succeed.
And most do — women, especially. Surrey has championed female presence in the STEM fields since its inception in 1966. Almost half of the lecturers are women — making access to opportunities easier for the average female student. Most academics here are relatively young too, making them even more approachable and relatable.
PhD candidate, Shailza Saini, can attest to this: “Only two months after arriving in Surrey, I joined the Women in Engineering society, participated in a sustainability event, and volunteered for one of the University Open Days. Surrey is so diverse and vibrant and as a students’ well-being ambassador, I can tell you that regardless of your background, gender, race and disability, you are welcome here!”
*Some of the institutions featured in this article are commercial partners of Study International