Celebrating Birkbeck’s TRIGGER project

Lucy Tallentire from the School of Business, Economics and Informatics reports on a celebration event for the TRIGGER project (Transforming Institutions by Gendering Contents and Gaining Equality in Research) – which aims to increase the number of women in university sectors where they are underrepresented.trigger850x450On Wednesday 21 June, the Birkbeck TRIGGER team held a special event of celebration, discussion and networking at BMA House, to mark an end to the four year research project. The event provided an opportunity to share with an audience of friends, supporters and collaborators the team’s final research findings, and hear from external guests from various fields within academia and business on the challenges and successes of gender equality initiatives.

Since its inception in January 2014, TRIGGER has produced vital research to support the increasing presence of women in higher education and business where they are underrepresented. The applied project – a partnership between institutions in the Czech Republic, France, Italy and Spain – has considered and developed initiatives to foster organisational change by promoting the role of women in research and academia, in STEM subjects and in management positions.

A Legacy of Mentoring and Leadership

In his welcome address, Professor David Latchman, Master of Birkbeck College, praised the innovative nature of TRIGGER, which has helped the College to rethink the way it approaches equality through Athena SWAN more broadly, too: “While this celebration marks the end of the TRIGGER project, it is important to note that the initiatives the team have introduced, such as College-wide mentoring and carefully tailored leadership seminars, will go on past the life of the scheme itself.” As Chair of the College’s Athena SWAN committee, Professor Latchman went on to describe the transformative influence that the mentoring programme has had on women academics at Birkbeck, especially on early career researchers.

The TRIGGER project team then took to the stage to present on the following areas of research and impact:

  • Networking
  • Academic Mentoring
  • Rethinking Research Methods to Investigate Sex Differences
  • Commercialisation of the work of women scientists
  • Gender cultures in research and science
  • Gender and Leadership

Each member of the team reflected on the outcomes of their individual part in the project, and on how these outcomes were both impactful and applicable. The project’s focus group sessions, for example, provided a platform to hear the personal experiences of women and men in the institution to analyse the way in which the infrastructure could better support and maintain gender equality in the workplace. Similarly, panel events with external collaborators in London, Dundalk, Lund and Pisa built on internal discussions and offered insight into how these initiatives could be transformed and applied to fit in with organisations beyond Birkbeck.triggerFollowing their research dissemination, a panel of experts in their respective fields of academia and industry were given a chance to react to these findings and comment on their own experiences.

Among concerns such as the gender pay gap, lack of support following a career break, and ‘the glass ceiling, the issue most frequently addressed by the panel was that of unconscious bias, and the need to step away from calling it ‘a woman’s problem’.  Gemma Irvine, Head of Policy and Strategic Planning at the Higher Education Authority in Ireland, described the effect of this on a woman as ‘not a lack of confidence in herself, but a lack of confidence in the organisation to treat them fairly and provide the right infrastructure for change. Unconscious bias is not something that can only be fixed by women – but those who have privilege are often blind to it.’

What can we learn from the TRIGGER project?

Simply recognising unconscious bias does not remove it from the system – and as a society, we must work day-to-day to chance the deeply entrenched stereotypes and imbalances. We need skilled leaders – both men and women to advocate for leadership for women – but there is also a need for women to identify role models, and aspire to the next stage in their career. The TRIGGER project has demonstrated the power of mentoring and of networks, but also the value of a balanced network; while women do not network as readily as men, removing all men from women’s networking opportunities is not a solution to the problem.

Ultimately, the short and intermediate changes, or outcomes, are not enough; we must strive for impact, changes in decision making and a culture shift to a ‘no closed doors’ policy for men and women. Only in collaboration with projects such as TRIGGER can we achieve broader changes within research and industrial communities and wider society. We must stop treating the symptoms of gender equality and start identifying and chipping away at the foundation of the problem to make a change.

The TRIGGER team would like to thank the panel, audience and its many international supporters for their work over the last four years. Find out more about TRIGGER on their website.

Many thanks to all the panelists:

  • David Stringer-Lamarre, Fortis Consulting/Chairman, IoD City of London
  • Amanda Bennett, Fairplay Enterprises Ltd
  • Sally Hardy, Regional Studies Association
  • Aggie Cooper, Aramco UK Ltd
  • Dr Gemma Irvine, The Higher Education Authority, Dublin
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Women and careers in STEMM: challenges, barriers and achievements of pioneers and today’s professionals

This post was contributed by Viviana Meschitti, a member of the Birkbeck TRIGGER team

trigger-pisa-event2On May 22 2017, the two TRIGGER teams from Birkbeck, University of London and the University of Pisa came together to organise an event to discuss the career pathways of women in STEMM disciplines: Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics and Medicine. The focus of the event was to discuss challenges and barriers to women in STEMM areas, in which they are significantly underrepresented, but also to foreground vital breakthroughs and achievements. The international collaboration of the TRIGGER project serves to show that the importance of gender equality is recognised worldwide, and was emphasised by the commitment expressed by the three male senior executives of the University of Pisa, who welcomed the participants and the audience of more than 30 people to this workshop.

There are nuances within each working environment and within each discipline, but whether it is biology, computer science or the arts and humanities, there are still many problems to overcome on the road to achieving gender equality in the workplace – from unconscious bias and career breaks, to flexible working and promotional opportunities. As many previous TRIGGER workshops have highlighted, the most important point made at this event was that one cannot place a high enough value on collecting data, which can be used as evidence of problems and solutions.

Rita Biancheri, Professor of Sociology at the University of Pisa, kicked off proceedings by providing an overview of the European data that clearly demonstrates an underrepresentation of women in STEMM disciplines. She also focused on the phenomenon of the “leaky pipeline”, an image used to illustrate the number of women decreasing along the academic career path from PhD to Professor. Disciplinary culture plays a pivotal role; Professor Biancheri presented the work that the TRIGGER team conducted at Pisa with a particular focus on engineering and medicine. In engineering, there is already a clear underrepresentation of women at undergraduate level, but the phenomenon of the leaky pipeline is not as significant later on. In the case of medicine, the number of women undergraduates has started to equal and even overcome those of men for many years, but then the leaky pipeline is particularly strong, meaning that a small minority of women occupy positions at the top of the academic sphere.

Representing the Birkbeck TRIGGER team, I shifted the focus to the situation at Birkbeck, and highlighted two points: first, that there is an increased pressure on more junior scholars to succeed in obtaining grants or publishing; and secondly that, independent of their familial situation, women are still the ones expected to “take care”, both within their family and their respective department. She highlighted the case of the Department of Biological Sciences at Birkbeck, which has been recognised historically as an especially good environment for research and for women researchers. The importance of having role models (like Rosalind Franklin, for example), and of the willingness to bring in women, has been reiterated by staff members participating in the TRIGGER research.

Ania Lopez, a mechanical engineer, works for the Italian National Council of Engineers to promote women’s careers and contribution in the engineering sector. She highlighted the achievements of recent years: an increase in women joining the Register of Engineers and the launch of “Ingenio al femminile” – an initiative to promote women’s contribution. An annual event is organised within the framework of this initiative, to discuss research on issues affecting women’s careers, such as the gender pay gap. Last year’s event was attended by equal numbers of men and women, which she considered a great achievement.

Caterina Franchini and Emilia Garda, researchers at the Polytechnic of Turin, presented the European project MoMoWo, focused on promoting women’s contributions in Architecture and Design. They discussed the issue of women not being represented in books about the History of Architecture, and have created a database to collect the history of almost 200 hundred women architects active in the last century, to underline their ground-breaking work. They also stressed the importance of raising awareness of the profession in younger generations; in collaboration with several architects, they have organised open days for people interested in visiting ateliers.

A panel discussion followed these presentations to shed light on a number of associated topics. Ania Lopez described women’s feeling of marginalisation, and that their avoidance to voice concern might be difficult if they are in a minority. It is vital to provide women academics with transferable skills to boost their confidence, but also, at a grassroots level, to train parents to educate their children as equals and avoid gender segregating activity. Caterina Franchini and Emilia Garda also focused on the family issue – how can women with small children be seen as able to focus solely on their career, when they are always placed in a position requiring challenging negotiation? This prompted discussion on the issue of quotas and meritocracy: Ania Lopez underlined that quotas do not help to promote women’s professional image, while Caterina Franchini suggested the problem must be reframed and seen in the wider context of underrepresentation of some specific groups.

The learned outcomes can be summarised as follows:

  • In different disciplines, the problems in relation to women’s underrepresentation are different: it is important to regularly collect and monitor data and design tailored initiatives
  • Women’s historical contribution within disciplines should be foregrounded
  • It is vital to increase young people’s awareness of the opportunities offered within the professions
  • Both women and men must be educated to consider and discuss the challenges related to gender equality.

The TRIGGER team would like to thank Birkbeck School of Business, Economics and Informatics, which provided a funding grant for this event.

You can find out more about the TRIGGER project on our website or follow us on Twitter @TRIGGERbbk

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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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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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