Being Festive about Women in STEM

Last week I attended an event at Murray Edwards College, a Women in STEM Festival. Dorothy Byrne, their President though not herself a scientist (she studied Philosophy at Manchester), had done a fantastic job in bringing together a wide range of speakers to discuss the thorny topic of the lack of women across the STEM disciplines. Should pride of place go to the discussion she chaired between the Vice Chancellors of Oxford and Cambridge? For the first time both are women, and both come from a science background. Irene Tracey is Professor of Anaesthetic Neuroscience at Oxford (as well as former Warden of Merton College) and Debbie Prentice, rather freshly arrived in Cambridge from Princeton where she was Provost, is a psychologist. To hear them talk about their ambitions in their roles, and their wish to see collaborations grow between their universities, was refreshing. They emphasized the importance of ensuring the academic environment does not allow so many female academics to ‘leak’ from the career ladder (see the write-up already published in the THE) and making sure there are on-ramps at different stages in a career.

Or maybe the highpoint was Chi Onwurah’s slightly breathless visit to talk about her career as an engineer (she studied Electrical Engineering at Imperial, a place she appears not to be very fond of judging by remarks I heard her make previously when I interviewed her during the pandemic). Not only did she talk about the satisfaction she got from her engineering career, including setting up the networking infrastructure in Nigeria encompassing her father’s home town, but also about what an incoming Labour Government has its eyes on doing in this space. She talked with great passion and commitment and, of course, is – through her role as a Shadow Minister for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy – well-placed to see these ideas come to fruition. Someone definitely committed to facilitating careers for women in STEM.

Her talk was followed by that from another key woman in the engineering world, Hayatuun Sillem, CEO of the Royal Academy of Engineering, another person with the opportunity to make a real difference for nascent engineers. After her speech she joined a panel discussing STEM careers ‘image problem’, as the programme put it. All speakers were clear that engineering covered so many areas but, sadly, too many teachers did not know the breadth of opportunities that the field opened up. As Hayatuun put it, there is a hard hat problem in images (for instance on Google), as well as a lack of gender diversity. Indeed, she pointed out there was more diversity in hat colour than sex to be found in such photographs.

I am quite sure that for many in the audience – itself diverse in age although less so in gender, ranging from Murray Edwards’ alumnae from the college’s earliest years to KS4 girls from schools in Cambridge and the East End of London – the highlight was the inaugural talk from Jocelyn Bell Burnell. Jocelyn was characteristically modest, but her wry comments about some of the statistics she presented highlighted the problems women still face in their careers. One point she identified that I had never myself previously put into the ‘unconscious bias’ category, is the habitual way forms requesting people to identify their sex as M or F, always put the M box to tick first. Not, as she pointed out, alphabetical order but a symptom of bias. My somewhat similar bête noire is when lists (e.g. of committee members) identify the woman with an F, while not identifying the male as anything: male by default as the head of my university’s HR put it some years ago when I complained. I am not convinced the practice has been wholly eradicated though. Allowing for non-binary choices may mean all such identifying initials disappear in the future.

There was far too much that was excellent to spell it all out, but the one additional point I will make which worries me was identified explicitly in the Q+A after my own talk about my book. Aren’t you preaching to the converted? was the question. And of course the answer was yes: within the specific audience at the Festival who were, I believe, all invited and who were overwhelmingly female, this was definitely the case. But also more generally, the wider world does not necessarily notice the issues which arise in this arena. I’ve said before, I wish I could find a way of reaching teachers, because I believe the problems of stereotyping around what boys and girls ‘should’ do and find interesting arise at very early ages. Teachers have the opportunity to try to counter the stereotypes portrayed in the media and in the way toys are marketed but, as far as I can see, advice to do so, let alone how to do so, do not form part of a teacher’s training. Certainly, the remarks Katharine Birbalsingh made to the Commons Diversity in STEM enquiry last year showed how ill-informed even highly-rated (head)teachers can be.

But there is also the problem of women talking to themselves. That there were few men there, as at so many similar talks, is also a concern. Women cannot solve this problem by themselves. Men have to understand the loss to the economy and to scientific research, as well as the damage to the individuals who lose out due to our current structures. And then, they need to recognize what needs to change. Many women are fed up with fighting this fight; many men seem oblivious to how the system propagates so that women need to go on fighting. When I talk, for instance to student or early career researcher talks, I am always pleased to see the men in the audience nodding at my arguments, but sometimes they may be thin on the ground.

And finally, and perhaps more controversially, is it right that an event should have no male speakers? Many a conference has been pilloried for not having an adequate percentage of female speakers. Although I totally understand why there were no men on the platform in Murray Edwards and all the women I heard (I missed the final afternoon) were absolutely outstanding in their talks and discussions (I exclude myself!), nevertheless, this is a problem for the whole population and we should all be talking about it, thrashing out solutions together. I always feel conflicted about this, just as I do when I’m asked, as I was, about whether an all-woman’s college – as Murray Edwards still is at student level – has a place in the UK today. I understand why some people still feel it has, and appreciate the splendid things it does, and yet…we don’t want to reinvent all male colleges. I worry about the asymmetry of this situation.


This entry was posted in Women in Science and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.