Impact for Women

Next week I am due to share a platform with Dave Delpy, CEO of the EPSRC amongst others, discussing the ‘Impact of Impact’. This is an event organised by a new student body, the Cambridge University Science and Policy Exchange. I will not (I am rather pleased to say) be discussing that controversial topic of impact as implied within Research Council walls – I’ll leave that to Dave to defend. My role is to discuss how research funding can and should impact on gender issues. If the money is tight, as it is, why should we use any of it specifically to support and promote women in science? As I’ve been pulling my ideas together, I’ve come across a recent article written by the US-based astronomer Meg Urry, who always has interesting things to say about gender issues. Although her piece deals specifically with issues in physics education, much of what she says resonates more broadly.

Perhaps we should start off by asking, what happens (and has been happening) when we exclude women from science, or at least deter them from pursuing science actively? There is the simple moral argument that this is wrong and it is indefensible to make life difficult for 50% of the population, but in the context of ‘impact’ we can go much further. It may be hard to quantify the value of some of the statements that follow, so I’m not going to put a pound sign against them, but the arguments at a qualitative level ought to be pretty compelling.

In the Board room, there is increasing evidence that a diverse team leads to higher profits. Why? Because different viewpoints permit a richer picture to be built of up of markets, consumers and hence of products that may make money. If the only viewpoint that is factored in is white, middle-class middle-aged men (for instance) then many potential customers may be left unsatisfied. Advertisers have appreciated this for many years (hence the use of focus groups targeting different groups to explore possibilities); it seems senior managers have been slower to appreciate the benefits of a multi-pronged approach to a problem.

Specifically in the area of innovation there are some very specific gender-related issues that may need to be considered when designing new products: ideas such as, what is the size/weight of the person for whom it is being designed or around whom the design is being configured. This applies, for instance and as I have written about before, when working out how safe cars are. It is not sufficient to use a standard male-sized crash dummy to work out safety features, the fact that women and children are also likely to be in a typical car must be considered. Yet for years this simple fact was overlooked. Much more on these issues can be found at the EU sponsored Gendered Innovations  website.

In science as in innovation, it is not one-size fits all. Having a diverse workforce, research or management team will, on average, be likely to lead to more creative solutions, whatever the project. Many projects need big teams to cover different aspects of a problem. This may mean diversity in discipline, an obvious example being the LHC. But diversity more broadly may, as in companies and in product development work, equally be beneficial in creativity and seeing problems from many directions.

What does this have to do with the ‘Impact of Impact’? Why should research funders care about these relatively intangible ideas? The answer to this is obvious. At the moment, despite girls getting good grades at school and frequently better than the boys on average, despite many courses (though not in physics or engineering) having equal numbers of boys and girls or even a majority of girls, the women aren’t sticking with the disciplines higher up the ladder or (even worse) they are being filtered out for reasons other than simple excellence: the atmosphere may feel inimical, working practices less than favourable and the challenges of achieving an attractive work-life balance may seem insurmountable. So, at the top of the academic heap, as well as other STEM professions, the numbers of women remain pitifully low. Yet, for the reasons I’ve just given, this is (economically) likely to be bad for science and the nation. Hence, there is a clear justification for spending hard cash on interventions to support the women who start off in the academic race and thereby encourage them not to quit.

An inimical workplace may not readily respond to mere injection of cash, but there are interventions that are relatively cheap yet demonstrably beneficial. As a specific example, consider the use of funds to facilitate returners from long term leave (typically maternity leave) getting back up to speed. A recent pilot ‘returning carers’ scheme’ in my own university has funded things like airfares for an additional person (be it nanny, the other parent or any other member of the family) to accompany the recipient to a conference or field trip so as to provide childcare. By enabling a young parent to attend a conference and so maintain an international profile in the first vital years of a child’s life, one of the perennial challenges for young mothers can be overcome at modest cost. The L’Oreal/UNESCO For Women in Science Fellowships in the UK are another source of funds which can be applied in an incredibly flexible way that wouldn’t normally be allowable on a standard research grant. Perhaps Research Councils might wish to consider this.

Or, to cite another example of issues that can hold people back, particularly women, how about running workshops on confidence-building to facilitate making that application for promotion? Again, this is something Cambridge has tried out recently (and not just for academic women) finding it to be something for which there was a huge unsatisfied appetite. A little bit of money goes a long way on workshops and many individuals can be reached simultaneously. At an individual level one to one coaching may become valuable to train the leaders of tomorrow, but is obviously far more expensive.

Finally, if interventions are successful in keeping women in science – not just academic science although that is the context in which the above examples are given, but other settings as well – then we will benefit far more, as a nation, from the money invested in their education. To train so many young women who then walk away and end up unable/unwilling to utilise their hard-acquired STEM-based skills is illogical and wasteful. It makes no economic sense. We should do better.

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4 Responses to Impact for Women

  1. Jenny Koenig says:

    I was interested in your comment about the usefulness of workshops. Do you know of any data on the difference they make? Or any ideas about how we might get that data?

    As you know, at Cambridge AWISE we run a number of workshops and recently held a networking event where we had a number of women who had previously attended our career development workshops talk about how it helped them get new jobs. This is lovely of course, but anecdotal. It would be wonderful if we could get a social scientist to be interested in making a research project out of it.

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  3. Cate says:

    I love the idea of paying for travel for a nanny for new parents (and/or, could more conferences provide daycare?). So conceptually simple and (relatively) cheap, but would indeed be so effective to transform a travel experience. Not that it matters, I think, but I don’t have children.

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