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Athena SWAN and Soapbox Science: A marriage made in heaven? – Co-founder of Soapbox Science, Dr. Nathalie Pettorelli

Soapbox Science

Dr. Nathalie Pettorelli is a research fellow at the Institute of Zoology, Zoological Society of London, where she carries out research on assessing and predicting the impacts of global environmental change on biodiversity and ecosystem services. She has authored / co-authored over a hundred scientific publications and she’s currently working on her third book. In 2011 she set up Soapbox Science alongside Dr. Seirian Sumner as an annual public science communication event with a difference.

Dr. Nathalie Pettorelli
Dr. Nathalie Pettorelli

“…you do not need a beard or hairs on your chest to be a brilliant physicist, an exciting engineer, or an inspirational biologist…”

In 2011, Seirian Sumner and I co-founded Soapbox Science, a science festival with two aims: to bring the opportunity to meet and interact with scientists in places you wouldn’t normally expect, and to increase the visibility of women in science.

We were (and still are) motivated by the growing lack of gender diversity found in the scientific meetings and workshops we were invited to attend, the paucity of female role models as we climbed the career ladder, and the level of sexism in science we were increasingly made aware of.

Simple ideas are the best

Soapbox Science was our response to all the negativity we were faced with. It is a simple idea – putting fantastic examples of female scientists in busy streets, on soapboxes, to show to show that you do not need a beard or hairs on your chest to be a brilliant physicist, an exciting engineer, or an inspirational biologist.

Making a bit of noise until things do actually change

We wanted our events to be engaging, hassle-free, non-intimidating and jargon-less; most importantly, we wanted them to demonstrate to the general public that amazingly good scientific work is done every day by women all over the UK. We both believed, and still do, that changing norms is about tackling clichés, reshaping expectations, raising awareness and making a bit of noise until things do actually change. Soapbox seemed like the perfect way to deliver on all of these points.

Over 180 incredibly inspiring women in STEMM

Over the past five years, we have been blessed with the opportunity to meet, connect and work with over 180 incredibly inspiring women in science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine (STEMM).

These women have taught us a lot about the diversity of paths and challenges that shape the way to a successful career in STEMM, and made us realise the complexity of the issues underpinning the paucity of women in STEMM. Many of these women have a connection with the Athena SWAN Charter, sitting on gender diversity committees in their home institution.

The emergence of a scientific culture where gender is no handicap

The links between Soapbox Science and the Athena SWAN Charter go beyond these human ties. Both initiatives have converging aims: seeing the emergence of a scientific culture where gender is no handicap.

The Charter is there to support the identification of the very specific set of issues hampering the career progression of women in STEMM in each potential recipient’s institution. This journey, unique to each institution, is the process required to draw an action plan likely to succeed in the place considered; there is sadly no miracle potion that works independently of the conditions calling for its use.

Soapbox Science – advertising the work of female scientists

Soapbox Science Exeter 2015
Soapbox Science, Exeter in 2015

Soapbox Science is a vehicle there to support work places who fail to identify ways to promote their women in science to the same extent of their male staff. It provides these institutions with an opportunity to nurture the emergence of strong female role models while advertising the work of their female scientists.

Sometimes who we “know” is simply who we have heard of

We all tend to value more who we know; sometimes who we “know” is simply who we have heard of. If this is remotely true, and I believe it is, then institutions actively promoting their female staff through Soapbox Science are likely to place an increased value on these individuals and their work.

Understanding what these female scientists do; what’s exciting about it

By communicating about these women to the press and the general public, they are putting efforts into understanding what these female scientists do; what’s exciting about it. In the process, staff who may not know each other get an opportunity to meet and chat.

That press officer suddenly knows who to call when he or she gets a BBC request about identifying a spokesperson to talk about plant invaders, because he or she just had to help promote that woman working on Japanese knotweed. And that is the start of a world where little boys and girls stop drawing scientists as guys equipped with glasses, essay tubes and calculators.


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