The WISE Conference 2015

IMG_3943It’s a grey, windy Thursday on the river and big purple signs are going up in Blackfriars. There’s awards being polished somewhere, bags being filled with lego and hundreds of scientists are making their ways across the capital. We’re at the WISE (Women in Science and Engineering) conference. The mood is: optimistic, with a chance of rain.

The conference is the only truly interdisciplinary celebration of women in STEM. Women make up about 9 % of the engineering workforce in the UK, and it’s just not enough- we make up 18 % in Spain, 20 % in Italy, 26 % in Sweden, Latvia and Bulgaria.


Before the conference kicked off, the WYWB (inc me) had their first board meeting. These women are phenomenal: they work on oil rigs in the North Sea, on the trading floor of Goldman and Sacks and turn sweet-sweet turnip-like-creations (‘Sugar Beets’) into Jamie Oliver’s current nemesis (the white stuff). They design submarines and jet engines and advertising platforms. I try (unsuccessfully) to entertain them for two hours. I hear a lot of business chat, ‘taking things forward’, and I feel like I’m going to hear a lot more.

Helen Wollaston, the CEO of WISE, opened the official part of event and took us through the website (or as adults call it ‘app’). The site (, provided by Bloomberg, contains the agenda, speaker bios, a space to ask questions and … should let you vote on on-screen questions which will then be auto-polled- but some catastrophic technical glitches (we’re not ALL tech) mean that it’s all a show of hands.

There’s a skills shortage in STEM (the UK needs around 40-50,000 more scientists and engineers a year) and this room can fix it. Helen’s seen the guest-list, she’s read the speaker bios and she’s read the nominees for the award ceremony later this evening and she “want[s] to be more like you…[she] want[s her] five-year-old niece to read them and want[s her] to be more like them”. Until 1975 it was legal for companies to say jobs were only for men and the numbers of women in engineering suffered.

The first panel discussion was chaired by Anna Edwards from Bloomberg and focussed on 40 years on since the passing of the sex discrimination act: can public policy speed-up our efforts for diversity in STEM, ‘Powering Progress with Policy’. The panelists gave their ‘dream-situation’ for diversity in STEM.

Trudy Norris-Grey, a big name in IT is chair of the WISE campaign. Trudy’s calling for 1 in 3 of the government’s new favourite hobby (apprenticeships) to go to young women. The UK have committed to 3 million apprenticeships across communications, energy and transport. We’ll need to build confidence and skills amongst our young women before they begin.

Catherine Mayer, co-founder of the women’s equality party, and Allan Cook of Atkins think it has to start at school. If the government invested in STEM more effectively (in proper physics and maths teachers), we’d have the brain power and facilities to enthuse and inspire. There was a lot of echoing of the IOP’s Opening Doors report: we need to increase gender balance across the curriculum, introducing gender equality in guidelines for children as young as 5.

Shashi Watson of Winton Capital, the first Imperial graduate of the event, wants girls and young women to realise the avenues they can open with science and maths. Naomi Climer, the president of the IET, wants it to be mandatory for companies over a certain size to publish stats on recruitment, retention, promotion and pay. Not only to ‘shame’ the companies who aren’t succeeding, but also share best practise and make it an important issue on people’s agendas.

So the first question: should companies publish stats on women in technology and senior management? A(n unsurprising) resounding yes from all panelists: we need to put diversity targets on the agenda, we need to review and monitor them, companies who don’t are ‘dinosaurs’. It’s beyond a point of ‘just being fair’- businesses are losing out too: a diverse workforce is more profitable, more effective and more successful. Allan Cook says it can’t just be the big businesses: 95 % of companies in manufacturing employ 20 employees or less, and we need to be fair in small and medium businesses too. The audience response was interesting though: people want it to be mandatory, but it wouldn’t change their opinion of applying to and organisation.

Next up: Is it time to introduce mandatory quotas? The panel was split on this: Winton and Atkins are against them, saying it will backfire because girls don’t know what’s out there yet: companies would feel a stigma because the women aren’t prepared. ‘There have been unofficial quote for centuries, and we can’t be patient for much longer’. there needs to be efforts to retain the ones going in too. Quotas are super divisive, and amongst the non-exasperated, super unpopular.

Should we have ‘carrots’/ incentives? Should we have tax rebates and special credits for companies taking on female apprenticeships? It’s worked in Japan. But Winton and Atkins are rogues again: we need to big companies to set the tone and lead by example. “We don’t have enough to fill the [leaky] pipeline”. When Trudy was at Microsystems UK she introduced part-time and flexible working: the biggest uptake was from men. Companies are becoming more aware of people changing and are becoming creative in their employment contracts.

Where’s it going well? Japan have a good incentive system and almost equal numbers, Latvia do well, Bulgaria are alright. Nordic companies have achieved parity with legislation and shared parental leave with a ‘Use it or Lose It’ motto.

Linda Holliday and Professor Alison Holmes (Imperial again) spoke about antimicrobial resistance. My brother, a foundation doctor at John Radcliffe Oxford, says that infectious disease doctors are mental. I thought Prof. H was brilliant:  ‘microbes don’t have borders or boundaries’- and nor does she. She’s crossed the world, she’s crossed the industry and she’s crossed the Imperial campus. She’s worked with crystallographers, mathematical modellers, social scientists, engineers, epidemiologists, statisticians, geographers, climate crusaders. Prof. H says if “you want to change the world, work with engineers!”- she’s certainly pitched to her audience perfectly. She runs a successful global research group, she’s a clinician and is leading postgraduate studies across the world. It was a really fascinating hour, emphasising the necessity of a diverse ‘skills-mix’ of the UK work force.

Lunch is full of science expos and networking. There are year 8 girls (!) from Putney High running riot with Lego, there are free Intel phone charges and there’s a STEMettes Outbox Incubator video on a loop. There’s outreach leaders from universities across the world, academics and scientists. I get a lot of free merch. That makes a happy Jess.

What do you think of when you think ‘investment bank’? ‘Learning, Problem-Solving and Peacekeeping’? Goldman and Sachs have been WISE members for a year and hosted a lunch-hour session entitled ‘technology de-coded’ chaired by Orla Dunne. Goldman have lots of cause to celebrate: their young panel were great, from the WYWB’s very-own trade floor champion Jia-Yan, to Fumi, who won an award for her app design and Caroline, an intern who now manages interns. But their doing great work too: they have a programme to retain and develop their women in tech, with networking, communication and outreach. They’ve not done it alone: the men help, leading career strategic initiatives. The young women have access to senior leaders and develop their own ‘gray wolf’ projects across other technologies. Goldman’s are really pro-stepping out of your comfort zone and adding to the organisation in your own way- as a result they lead a generation of female technologists who aren’t one-track. They have weekly ‘fix-it’ Fridays, hack-days, an “I try” scheme. Jia-Yan’s been everywhere: she’s a Cambridge grad with a Masters degree who’s worked at BT and MIT. Her CV sparkles. Jia-Yan uses the subjects she loved at school: art, science and maths: to design software for traders. Goldman’s top girl’s top-tips are: Be proactive, have an opinion, be experimental, be creative, nominate yourself to new learning opportunities. Goldman’s success is because they aren’t ‘sticky’ they have a fluid tech team taking advantage of all different channels. They reassess their professional development programmes annually; considering where to expand further, where to forget. They have senior mentors who act as sounding-boards for their aggressive city-style interviews.

We were told that in the past 2 years we’ve generated 90 % of the world’s data: problems have become so complex we’re having to find new ways to solve them. Check out this fab video:

We were introduced to People Like Me, WISE’s resource for young girls. WISE’s resource launched earlier this year (read my report here!) and is the result of Averil’s extensive expertise: we’re not engaging girls into STEM because we’re not communicating with them in a language they understand. People Like Me was born from ‘Not for People Like Me’, the WISE study: check it out here!

We watched a great video from the Institution of Civil Engineers:

AWE, Thales and AMEC Foster Wheeler introduced the world to women in defence: the one’s finding helicopters at sea and programming planes. Whilst women make up 14 % of the 2015 STEM workforce they only make up 7 % of the Defence and Nuclear workforce. Bo Tyson, a defence apprentice, spoke to careers advisors in sixth form and found that the industry could let her make a difference to the country as a whole. Laura McLoughlin studied physics at university to understand how things worked, but the four-year course made her her understand even less. Adrian Gannon says the women on his teams make them more robust, with the ability to reach broader solutions quicker and easier. Industry have been okay at bringing women up- but they somehow lose them in leadership. Sarah Magnus echoes earlier ideas that you have to be bold and assertive: have the confidence to ignore professors who think girls shouldn’t study physics, take help when people reach out to you. Laura got a male mentor “..but he’s good”.

The conference closed with a wonderful presentation of numbers and shock-factor from Vivian Hunt at McKinsey. McKinsey say that advancing women’s equality can add $12 trillion to global growth. (Check out the resource here). McKinsey looked at 95 countries and tracked a series of ‘gender equality indicators’: education, leadership positions, political representation, wage gaps, financial inclusion.

The scandalous highlights:

  • Women make half of the world’s ‘working age population’, and only generate 37 % of GDP
  • 75 % of unpaid work is done by women
  • 61 % of unpaid care work is routine chores
  • > 1 million girls are not born each year because of sex-selective abortion
  • Higher female participation would add 240 million workers
  • 22 female ministers/ parliamentary candidates for every 100 men
  • Sweden provides for 480 days of parental leave with benefits, with 60 days reserved specifically for each parent

The conference was full of WISE women with clever opinions and slick answers.

Key learning points for Jess: 

  • Everyone has mentors, champions or heroes: if you don’t, try and get one. If you can’t get a relationship to work with a mentor, whether it be via a formal or casual stream, then find another.
  • Super-successful women are very assertive and confident: they don’t take what their given, they ask for more.
  • Free merch is getting a lot more fun (phone chargers ! head phones !)
  • Businesses do better with more women in… and CEO’s notice that.
  • It is possible to be innovative in investment banking (who knew!?)
  • Being an infectious diseases doctor is just about the coolest and most difficult subject in the world.
  • You can go anywhere and do anything with a science degree. 

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