Fighting for diversity and equality in STEM

Materials World magazine
29 Aug 2019

This month we highlight people who are consistently working to create a more diverse and equal STEM sector. Idha Valeur talks to Natalie Cheung and Siena Castellon, who are committed to improving and increasing acceptance in STEM careers.

Abasic internet search of diversity in STEM will yield millions of hits, with articles about how to increase diversity and why this is important. While the discussion is welcome, progress is driven by a change in behaviour and attitude.

STEM Learning STEM Ambassador Co-ordinator, Natalie Cheung, says a wakeup call is needed to achieve a more diverse future. Here, Cheung talks about recruiting and training volunteers, and how the responsibility for change does not sit with minority groups alone.

Tell me about what you do?

I am part of the team that delivers the STEM Ambassadors programme in London. STEM Ambassadors are volunteers from a broad range of jobs and backgrounds who are passionate about inspiring young people to pursue science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) studies and careers. I work with STEM workplaces, schools, professional institutions and more to recruit, train up and mobilise volunteers. I have been a STEM ambassador myself for six years now and have seen the impact that volunteers can have first-hand. My favourite moment was when a teenager entered an office and said “This is like a movie” – she had never been in the city centre or on the tube, despite living in London.

What do you think should be done to improve diversity and equality in STEM?

I think we need a wakeup call. Work to improve diversity and equality is not solely for those in minority groups. We all need to take part to ensure we have equality and diversity in STEM, in areas including age, race, gender, disability, religion, neurodiversity and more. Many of these are not immediately obvious and may even be invisible, but that does not mean there are not barriers. Direct discrimination exists, but so does indirect discrimination. We need to question how we have always done things to make sure we have an environment where all people can thrive.

How can people get involved to improve equality and diversity?

Confront those who exclude people with their words or actions. They may not even realise the harm they cause or stereotypes they are perpetuating. As individuals, we can all take time to listen to people who are different from us. Learn about the barriers and difficulties faced by other people. Do not speak for them, or over them, but instead amplify their voices.

You can register to become part of the STEM Ambassadors programme to inspire young people to start a career in STEM, at


The Inclusion Group for Equality in Research in STEMM (TIGERS) believes that equality of access to funding is critically important in supporting and sustaining a diverse range of ideas and talent in the UK. Together the TIGERS recognise the challenges members of under-represented groups face and aim to amplify their voices through engagement across policy, within academia, and with industrial collaborators. To get involved, follow the TIGERS on Twitter at @TigerinSTEMM.

Here are TIGERS’ tips for a more inclusive workplace:

  • Listen and learn: Your experience of your workplace will differ from that of your under-represented minority colleagues. Ask your colleagues about their experiences, listen to them and believe them. Do not minimise their feelings.
  • Get trained: If your institute offers a range of equality, diversity and inclusion training, do not just do the minimal online course to tick the box –seek out opportunities to learn more. Increasing numbers of employers offer active bystander training which genuinely empowers employees to speak out when they witness discriminatory, harassing or bullying behaviour.     
  • Be bold: Use visible signs of inclusivity, such as rainbow lanyards. Lobby your employer to celebrate Black History Month, LGBTSTEM day, International Women’s Day or other diversity celebrations and be ready to explain the importance of these initiatives to sceptical colleagues. Do not leave it to the members of minority groups.
  • Recognise excellence: Nominate women, people of colour, LGBTQ+ scientists, disabled scientists and other underrepresented colleagues for prizes. Do not wait for them to ask you to help out with a nomination – when you see an opportunity to put them forward for recognition, contact them and tell them you would like to nominate them.

Q&A with Siena Castellon 

Siena Castellon is a neurodiverse student who has launched two separate initiatives to promote neurodiversity.

You have started two initiatives to improve diversity - can you tell me about them?

When I was 13 I created a website,, to mentor and support autistic students and students with learning differences. I created the website because I was unable to find any information or resources specifically aimed at providing advice for neurodivergent children.

Last year, I launched Neurodiversity Celebration Week, which aims to encourage schools and colleges to change the way they perceive their autistic students and students with learning differences. Too often, schools focus on the challenges of being a student with special educational needs at the expense of recognising the many advantages and benefits of being neurodivergent. I wanted to change this by flipping the narrative to empower neurodivergent students to perceive themselves more positively and to change negative perceptions and stereotypes about individuals who think and perceive the world differently.

Tell me about your mission

Unfortunately, there is still a significant stigma and negative perceptions about autism and learning differences. Many students assume we are not smart because we struggle in the traditional classroom setting. Yet, we have many attributes and skills that may not be recognised and assessed in the school curriculum, but which play an important role in ensuring we have successful careers. For example, 35% of entrepreneurs in the USA and 20% in the UK are dyslexic.

At school, we are often made to feel like failures, which can negatively affect our confidence and sense of self-worth. I wanted to highlight neurodivergent strengths and achievements so that neurodivergent students who may be questioning their potential and apprehensive about their future are empowered by knowing that their attributes and skills will be significant assets in their careers.

Why is diversity important in STEM?

It fosters a more creative and innovative environment. Bringing people together from various different backgrounds with different perspectives and life experiences can lead to generating ideas and solutions that would otherwise not have been considered. I believe it is important to include neurodivergent individuals, because we have many attributes that can be of great benefit to the scientific community. Our attributes include our problem-solving skills, ability to think outside-the-box, pattern recognition skills, creative and innovating approaches, resilience and unique way of perceiving and interacting with the world.

What would you say to someone who is reluctant to pursue a career in STEM due to being different?

There is a perception that being different is a negative attribute, which implies that we should all strive to be the same. I think that being different is a very positive attribute, especially in STEM. All the greatest pioneers and innovators who have shaped the world we live in were different. They did not shy away from their difference, but rather embraced and harnessed it. I think that being different is almost a requisite for innovation and scientific progress. People like Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk, who have transformed the landscape in which we live, were perceived as being different. I would tell someone who is reluctant to pursue a career in STEM due to being different to go for it, because their difference will be an asset.

What should the industry do to improve?

There are lots of initiatives to increase diversity in STEM, but most are focused on gender and race. As far as I am aware, there are no specific large-scale initiatives focused on increasing neurodiversity in STEM. However, students who are autistic, dyslexic, dyspraxic or have ADHD face unique barriers and challenges that may prevent them from being able to pursue a career in STEM. For example, they may not perform as well on GCSE and A-Level exams, or in the case of autistic students, they may not perform as well in interviews.

I think the scientific community has to put initiatives in place to ensure that neurodivergent students are not kept out of careers in STEM and that they foster and develop neurodivergent talent. It is for this reason that I am very excited to be part of the 2eMPower project, which aims to support neurodivergent secondary students to pursue careers in STEM. The project was started by Imperial College Professor Sara Rankin, who is dyslexic and dyspraxic. I am also excited to be an ambassador for the EDT Headstart Program, which runs university taster STEM courses, including STEM programmes for girls.

In terms of what the industry can do to improve, I think existing programmes, such as the Sutton Trust Summer Schools and Nuffield Research Placements should expand their eligibility criteria to include neurodivergent students. Universities should also explore how to remove some of the barriers that may be preventing talented neurodivergent youth from pursuing a course in STEM.

How can people get involved to improve equality and diversity?

We still have a long way before there is equality and diversity in STEM. I think the main way to bring about change is to challenge our own unconscious biases. It is these learned stereotypes that are automatic, unintentional and deeply ingrained that help perpetuate the status quo. I think that making a concerted effort to understand our own unintended preferences and reactions to people is one way that each and every one of us can play a role in bringing about more equality and diversity.

What is your ultimate goal?

My ultimate goal is for most schools around the world to take part in Neurodiversity Celebration Week so that future generations of neurodivergent children can embrace and be proud of who they are.

Neurodiversity Celebration Week will be celebrated from 16–20 March 2020.