STEMing the flow – How can we keep women in STEM subjects?

This post was contributed by Lucy Tallentire, from Birkbeck’s School of Business, Economics and Informatics

stemming-the-flowMuch has been done in recent years to foster girls’ confidence in their abilities in Mathematics and Science, and go for a career in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics). While 33% of the undergraduate course intake across these subjects in the UK is now female, the statistics on retention of female academics in STEM subjects are still far from indicating an even playing field. So does a career in STEM pose specific challenges for women? And what are the challenges when building a STEM career in the university sector?

These questions were among those discussed by guest speaker Professor Ursula Martin, CBE, who joined the Birkbeck TRIGGER team last week to discuss how female academics in STEM can navigate the challenges of a male-dominated sector. The event took the form of a conversation between Professor Martin, of the University of Oxford, and Dr Maitrei Kohli, who recently completed her PhD in the Departments of Computer Science & Information Systems and Psychological Sciences at Birkbeck.

Unconscious Biases

It was quickly agreed that, while a recent surge in opportunities for girls to engage with coding and science is certainly influential, a major responsibility to get more girls into STEM starts at home. Parents and early age role models are more likely to have a restrictive influence on aspiration if they impose social gender stereotypes on toys and activities – Lego and sport versus dolls and dancing. A key thing to consider is the parallels between these stereotypes and the STEM industries; there is an inherent need to first recognise unconscious biases in order to try to avoid them, and that needs to start at an early age.

Both Professor Ursula Martin and Dr Matrei Kohli had parents who encouraged them to develop their own interests. Dr Kohli, originally from India, went to a school which offered computing alongside other extra-curricular options such as music and dance. With parental support, she learned about computer science through basic exercises and play, and never saw herself as different to her male classmates. By contrast, Professor Martin had no access to science outside of her prescribed schooling:

“I went to a school where maths and physics were taught poorly. But before we took our GCSE equivalent exams, we got a new, much younger teacher who was an inspiration to many of us. There is certainly something to be said for motivating the next generation from a young age – you can’t re-educate girls of 13 to like a subject they have been put off from age three!”

The need for change

The low number of female professors of Computer Science in the UK begins with the low numbers of women studying the subject at university – less than 20%. However, while more and more girls are starting degrees in STEM subjects, women are still under-represented at professorial levels in all STEM disciplines, typically at 17%. This varies between disciplines and in computer science the current average is just 10%. This demonstrates a need for changes in universities so as to encourage more women to embark on and progress with a career in academia:

“There are a lot of different incentives for women to work in higher education, but more changes need to be made. For example, if a university board requires a female professorial representative, that woman is chosen from a much smaller pool of professors and adds an extra burden to their workload. This bias is also present at conferences and events, where women are not as well represented – but surely we should be encouraging careful work on a few very good papers rather than working frantically to present something new.”

After an insightful conversation, Professor Martin was asked what advice she would offer to the female researchers and PhD students in STEM, hoping to progress in their academic careers. Her answer: passion, hard work and confidence.

“There are challenges to every work-life balance and the important thing is to adjust, and make room for your passion and curiosity. There could not be a more interesting field – try to think of an area of work devoid of computers. Do not be put off by gloomy statistics; research in STEM is to be cherished as an interesting endeavour, and we must do more to promote it as an equal opportunity wherever and to whomever we can.”

Further information:

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UpScale visits 10 Downing Street

This post was contributed by Kate Dodgson, UpScale’s Employability Project Manager

Kate Dodgson (right) at networking event at 10 Downing Street

Kate Dodgson (right) at networking event at 10 Downing Street

On 24 November 2016, UpScale went to 10 Downing Street to attend a Women in Tech Networking and Mentoring event. The event was on the invitation of Rt. Hon Karen Bradley MP – the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport and was organised by one of UpScale’s partners – DevelopHer – a non-profit organisation elevating women in tech.

100 women in tech were invited to attend and were divided into mentors and mentees. I was invited to represent Birkbeck as a mentor. Birkbeck’s UpScale programme aims to encourage Birkbeck students to pursue work in technology and has a strong focus on under-represented groups including women in technology. Partnerships with organisations such as DevelopHer support UpScale to achieve this important aim.

While nibbling on cucumber sandwiches and sipping elderflower cordial, the fifty mentors began networking with the fifty mentees. Roughly ten minutes were allocated to each conversation before a gavel was hit and the women rotated. Ideas, business cards and laughs were exchanged, and there were women representatives from the public sector, higher education, the private sector (ranging from huge multi-national companies to brand new start-ups) and everything in-between.

The Rt. Hon Karen Bradley arrived and gave a speech highlighting the gender gap in STEM industries and emphasising the need to close the gap. She said that the event was designed to allow prominent women in tech to get their heads together to try and find ways to combat the inequality. She invited the women attending to suggest to her ways that the government could address the under-representation of women.

downing-st-4The evening ended with a hundred selfies by the front door of No.10 and a walk to a nearby pub. Here the networking continued, and the wine drinking commenced. Ideas on how to lessen the gap and make technology a sector of choice, for all women, continued and relationships were built and no doubt will continue to be nurtured in the coming weeks and months.

Birkbeck’s UpScale programme helps promote women in tech by exposing female students to the tech industry and offering ideas and thoughts, directly from industry on how to support them to enter it. Through partnering with numerous companies and organisations, UpScale provides students with a series of co-curricular events which improve their digital and soft skills. Providing female students with these skills gives them greater confidence to enter a currently male-dominated industry and over time will reduce the gender imbalance.

UpScale is delighted to have been invited to No. 10 to act as a mentor for women in tech and looks forward to continuing the incredible work being done to boost women’s prospects in this substantial industry.

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“Boy Brain, Girl Brain” – A TRIGGER Seminar on Cognitive Early Development

This post was contributed by Lucy Tallentire, from the School of Business, Economics and Informatics

boygirlSex differences have been the source of contentious debate in recent years, beguiling scientists, lay people and major stakeholders like the NHS and pharmaceutical companies. There are obvious physiological and anatomical differences between the sexes but cognitive differences are often conveyed through stereotypes – that males have better motor and spatial abilities and females have superior memory and social cognition skills, for example. While there is research to support some areas of cognitive sex difference, recent studies have shown that the magnitude of sex differences has decreased in recent years. This suggests the causes of these differences may have less to do with one’s genetics than one’s environment – that nurture may be just as powerful as nature to one’s brain development. It also provides further evidence for the effectiveness of contemporary social movements to bridge the gap between “women’s roles” as nurturing child-bearers and “men’s roles” as workers.

So what can research into typical and atypical early development tell us about sex differences? And should we be focusing on biology as the route of sex differences?  These were just some of the questions addressed by guest speaker Teodora Gliga, from Birkbeck’s Centre for Brain and Cognitive Development, at a special seminar on Wednesday 7 December. The event was arranged and hosted by the Birkbeck TRIGGER initiative, a European-wide research project dedicated to Transforming Institutions by Gendering Contents and Gaining Equality in Research.

Why look at sex differences?

Hormonal differences initiated by biology and genes affect physical and cognitive development; the genes on sex chromosomes and the levels of sex hormones influence the brain during early development. Many psychiatric disorders are more common either in boys or girls; boys are more likely to develop autism – the focus of Teea’s research – but girls are more prone to anxiety. By utilising animal models of development and human studies that have revealed early biological differences between sexes present even before birth, Teodora was able to explain differences in susceptibility to risk factors associated with autism.

However, that the effect is amplified when the brain is exposed to risk factors or adversity, such as stress, demonstrates that biology is not the only variable in the development of a disorder like autism; recent research by Anne Fausto-Sterling on how best to study difference in infant early development has shown that, although birth characteristics provide a moment to begin analysis of developmental processes that lead to sex-related differences in behaviour and preference, this is an arbitrary starting point. Many of the biologically-oriented studies use prenatal sex differences in hormone production as the explanation for later difference in behaviour but according to Fausto-Sterling, it seems likely that hormones are but one of many factors affecting human foetal growth and development. In this framework, behaviour after birth develops independently as small biological differences are slowly magnified by external influences – social, cultural and environmental.

Case Study: The British Autism Study of Infant Siblings

The British Autism Study of Infant Siblings was established to explore the development of autism in young infants, and to advance and improve early detection and diagnosis. Parents frequently tell medical professionals that they knew there was something different about their child’s development quite early on, often long before an official diagnosis is received. However, it has been hard for researchers and clinicians to know about the very early signs for autism as they typically only see the child when they are over three years old, when a diagnosis can be reliably given. Although diagnoses for autism spectrum disorder (ASD) have fallen in recent years, it remains more commonly developed by boys – 1:42 boys and 1:189 girls, according to studies from 2010 and 2014.

Scientific understanding of the neurobiological basis of autism has advanced dramatically in past decades, but there is still very little known about how the condition develops over the first few years. This is precisely why Teea’s team at the Birkbeck Babylab launched the Studying Autism and ADHD Risks (STAARS) project, which looks specifically at the early development of baby brothers and sisters of children with autism spectrum disorders, attention deficit disorders and typical development. The project is notably an output of the TRIGGER programme, as the initiative provided the funding for the research assistant who carried out the analysis.

Of the participants with elder siblings with an ASD diagnosis, 20% went on to develop and get a diagnosis for ASD. The study showed a negative correlation between IQ and severity of symptoms, which provides further evidence that IQ is a protective factor against the development of autism. But Teodora was quick to remind the audience that there is still a lot of debate on these findings – there has not been one specific gene that can explain more than 10% of cases. One must also consider that the symptoms of autism might be exposed more easily in this case study, as it must be conducted on “High Risk” families, where they might be more actively looking for symptoms because of a heightened awareness of autism, and where interactions with siblings with an ASD diagnosis might even be a contributory environmental factor.

Teea finished her presentation with a call for more statistics and better models through which to analyse these statistics. If we are to gain a deeper understanding of ASD, its causes and its early detection, we must focus first on mediating effects that may reveal protective mechanisms, and on increasing our understanding of underlying biology of sex differences and the implications of hormones. According to the expert, “it is a story of interactions between biological, social and cultural factors with cascading effects.”

Further Links:

The TRIGGER team at Birkbeck is currently seeking mentees and mentors for their Athena SWAN mentoring programme 2016/17. The mentoring scheme is open to research, technical and academic staff who work at Birkbeck – find out more here.

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Goal-setting for women working in a professional environment

This post was contributed by Mark Panton, TRIGGER Administrator. Here, Mark reports from the TRIGGER (Transforming Institutions by Gendering Contents and Gaining Equality in Research) First Early Career Seminar, which focused on goal-setting for women working in a professional environment.

Trigger logoThe issue

Too often, women have to put their broader life goals in the shade in order to pursue their career. This is neither necessary, nor is it sustainable. On 15 September, TRIGGER’s First Early Career Seminar addressed some of the underlying tensions that exist which make it harder for women to pursue a clear and balanced set of goals for themselves and their work.

In an engaging and interactive workshop, board mentor Dr Andrew Atter discussed why goal-setting can be so hard together with strategies both women and men can use to formulate a balanced set of goals for themselves; then influence their environment to enable those goals to become a reality.

The relevance of goal-setting and why it is difficult

Goal-setting is particularly important in relation to gender.  Women often have to make more painful trade-offs than men. For women it may be trade-offs in their family and working lives leading to frustrations and limited options. There is some way to go and this can also be true for men where they may have too little time for their family and too much time at work leading to issues of isolation and loneliness. There is also a sense in which many people don’t have goals and are just influenced by the environment.

What makes goal-setting so difficult?

  • Feeling stuck
  • Always out of reach
  • Aspirational (versus planned)
  • Conflicting priorities
  • Life gets in the way

Strategies

Participants discussed goals they had achieved despite these issues and what could be learned from those achievements. Strategies that were debated included the basic step of asking for help; finding the emotional key and the need for resonance. Standard methodologies of goal setting were considered such as the linear, value alignment and realist approaches.

The seminar finished with the use of Triads (new for some of the participants) for a role-playing exercise involving coaches, clients and observers. Even in this short role-play some interesting responses and learnings included.

“I did have more goals and aims than I thought”.

“It was easier to open-up than expected”.

“It can be difficult to talk about goals with a line manager”

The seminar demonstrated there are practical and useful techniques and “life hacks” that can make a big difference. However, much will depend on your own attitudes and behaviour, rather than waiting for the world to become a more perfect place.

Find out more

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