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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19th Uddevalla Symposium: Rethinking Leadership and Gender

This post was contributed by James Fisk, graduate administrator at the School of Business, Economics and Informatics. Here, James reports from the 19th Uddevalla Symposium, held at Birkbeck from 30 June to 2 July 2016. Read James’s first and second blogs on the symposium.

Trigger logoAre female leaders more efficient in family firms? Does corruption have a gendered effect on small firm performance? These are some of the questions posed at the recent Uddevalla symposium, held in the UK for the first time at Birkbeck’s Bloomsbury campus, between 30 June and 2 July. As part of its stated themes of ‘Geography, Open Innovation, Diversity and Entrepreneurship’ the symposium took time to focus on gender inequality, with TRIGGER (Transforming Institutions by Gendering Contents and Gaining Equality in Research) holding a dedicated paper session to consider the topic.

The question of gender equality among businesses and innovators is a complex one; gender exists as a category long before we enter the workplace and carries with it a variety of social, psychological and material implications. It’s clear that increased gender diversity can have a positive effect on firm performance and, as McKinsey & Company pointed out recently, will be absolutely crucial to global economic growth in the coming years – possibly to the tune of $12 trillion by 2025. However, for both the global economy and society at large to benefit from these prospective dividends, attention must be paid to gender inequality in its current form and its attendant complexities.

Therefore, a much discussed theme of the symposium appeared not so much as, how can we honour an obligation to gender parity, but crucially, how can we unleash the huge productive potential of an equal and diverse workforce and, what are the implications for innovation and entrepreneurship?

Is leadership a gendered role?

A keynote speech from Professor Colette Henry, Head of Business and Humanities at the Dundalk Institute of Technology and CIMR Visiting Fellow, considered the position of female entrepreneurs and innovators through the prism of veterinary practitioners and researchers. Her lecture, the first keynote lecture of the three-day symposium, discussed many of the counter-intuitive features of the sector – notably that there are more than twice as many male as female sole principals, and more than four times as many male directors or equity partners, in veterinary firms, despite women accounting for over 50% of those working or studying in the sector.

Her work suggests that current innovation and entrepreneurial ecosystems, despite their propensity to change and evolve, are not sufficiently addressing less visible barriers for women. Professor Henry proposes an ‘integration’ model rather than merely beefing up the curriculum with corrective modules, this, she says, is the way to instil ambitious young females with the confidence and support necessary for them to excel to male dominated positions.

It seems, therefore, that the task of encouraging female innovators and entrepreneurs is one keenly tied to changing perceptions, of decoupling innovation and entrepreneurship from gendered ideas of what makes a good leader or a successful entrepreneur.

Porous Borders

Professor Per-Olof Bjuggren’s paper ‘Are Female Leaders more Efficient in Family Firms?’ also considered how definitions of leadership intersect with wider cultural issues, this time by scrutinising family firms. Professor Bjuggren’s work situates itself at the nexus of two historically gendered leadership roles, head of the family and head of the firm, allowing us to trace the relationship between the two and, ultimately, consider the effects of their intersection.

His work found that, whilst the effect of female CEO’s in non-family firms is ambiguous, female leaders in family firms had a positive impact upon the fortunes of the business. Whilst he proposes further research to unpack this assertion, his findings are crucial to understanding how the question of leadership is not one to be solely directed at businesses, but also society and culture at large. The quest for gender equality and equity cannot be an isolated and compartmentalised pursuit, as indicated by Professor Bjuggren’s work, it must look to consider the porous borders between whom we are at home and who we are at work.

You can see the winners of the 19th Uddevalla Symposium best paper awards on their site. To see the ways in which Birkbeck are tackling gender inequality, please visit TRIGGER’s webpage, as well as viewing the various networking and mentorship programmes such as ASTREA and AURORA.

Find out more

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