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Digital Science Spotlight – Bridging the Gender Gap #WiSTEMspotlight #ALD15

22nd October 2015
By Katy Alexander

Last week, as part of the celebrations for Ada Lovelace Day, we hosted an evening to bring together a panel of experienced and thoughtful speakers to discuss key issues surrounding the under-representation of women in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM).

Taking place in our Stables venue, the informal evening started with drinks and pizza before moving on to the panel discussion.

Dr Alexis Webb (@lexbwebb), chronobiologist and postdoc at the Crick Institute, moderated the discussion and introduced her fellow panel members. Dr Webb also gave a really informative and useful overview of the problem, introducing some powerful stats around the representation of women in STEM, as well as public attitudes towards women’s ability to succeed in STEM.

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The next person to speak was Marietta DiChristina (@mdichristina), Editor-in-Chief at Scientific American. Marietta introduced a brief story relating to Marie Curie, the first woman to win a Nobel Prize and the first person and only woman to have won two, illustrating some historical context for issues around women in STEM.

Despite her unprecedented achievements the French Academy of Science turned down Marie Curie’s application to join because she was a woman. Marietta then read out a short essay, “Sex and Scientific Recognition”, originally published in Scientific American, criticising the French Academy’s decision as “deplorable”. The essay described how this decision could further discourage women from contributing to science and that this would be a great loss for science. The achievements of women need to be celebrated to encourage women to contribute to science, this was true i 1911 and it is still true in 2015.

Lizzie Gibney (@lizziegibney), reporter at Nature, spoke about recent media coverage of sexism rows, for example Tim Hunt’s infamous comments and Matt Taylor’s #shirtgate, who she actually interviewed as a reporter. Lizzie also highlighted some powerful and illustrative statistics, which showed the breadth and extent of the under-representation of women in STEM and the challenges they face.

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Lizzie then put forward some constructive suggestions for ways to tackle the issues around women in STEM. Lizzie stressed that both men and women need to work together to tackle what are often unconscious biases. Inclusivity and open dialogue are essential to progress. In Lizzie’s opinion, mentoring programmes and strong leadership are also extremely important.

Jonathan Eisen (@phylogenomics), professor at UC Davis and advocate for female representation in STEM, in particular at academic conferences. Jonathan gave a neat and concise statement of the problem, which is that there are implicit and explicit biases against women in science and that we all should be doing something to try and correct for this and fix this. So Jonathan’s one recommendation was do something, don’t do nothing, don’t just sit there, comment about it, talk about it, write about it, there’s a lot that can be done.

Next up was Geoff Goss, lecturer in engineering at London South Bank University, to give his perspective on the especially low representation of women in engineering, as well as examining how this has not always been the case, for example in the first and second world wars the engineering workforce was predominantly female.

The engineering sector has been male-dominated, with a few, mainly wartime, exceptions. Geoff referred to the Perkins Review of Engineering Skills from 2013, which produced 22 different recommendations. The key point of analysis was that there is no gender gap at the GCSE stage, but then the gap dramatically emerges with respect to A-level physics, which is of course essential for engineering. So encouraging girls to take A-level physics will be a key element of any strategy to improve the representation of women in engineering.

Dr Buddhini Samarasinghe (@DrHalfPintBuddy), science communicator and founder of STEM women, spoke about how men need to actively be allies in all aspects of their lives, not just describe themselves as allies or do one small thing and then expect praise, aka an “ally cookie”.

Dr Samarasinghe also discussed the need to be aware of the intersectionality of gender biases in STEM. Gender biases affect all women, but they affect some more than others and often that is due to racial and ethnic biases. Her concluding summary was that gender inequality in STEM is not just a “women’s problem”, we need everyone to help fix this, we need change at every level and we all need to listen. There are also many easy and simple practical steps that can be taken by universities, by labs, to support women, not exclude them, for example around flexible working and child care duties.

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Interestingly, Dr Julia Shaw (@drjuliashaw), lecturer in criminology at London South Bank University, spoke about the reverse situation in the social sciences, the over-representation of women and the under-representation of men. A consideration of the extremes of gender representation can help us understand how academic subjects and fields, which are of course gender-neutral, become “gendered” by society. Dr Shaw spoke about her perception of differences in the way male and female students approach studying and the way they project themselves into future roles e.g. “I think I could do what that person does”. Despite the reversal in the gender ratio, the social sciences still suffer from instances of institutional sexism, unfortunately it doesn’t just disappear because there are more female academics.

The final speaker of the evening was Phoebe Scriven (@phoebescriven), from Girls in Tech London, who shared her perspective on the current situation for women in technology and what can be done to improve it. Phoebe’s key points were that grassroots organisations and initiatives need to be supported, companies & institutions should consider implementing formal mentoring programmes and lastly, the hardest thing to do, in her opinion, challenging casual everyday sexism you encounter in the workplace.

The event generated a lot of tweeting, so we’ve put all the tweets together into a Storify, which is embedded below.

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