WISE Knowledge Sharing Event @ Imperial: Gender Diversity Drives Innovation

The WISE campaign teamed up with Imperial College for their first ‘knowledge sharing event’ of 2016 and their first ever at a university. Imperial is an all science university, championing innovation in technology, engineering, science, maths and medicine. Historically Imperial has suffered from misconceptions about diversity, but we’re addressing it from every level: student admissions and staff recruitment is being carefully considered, there’s a whole centre for gender equality and we’re hosting events like this. The panel was chaired by Imperial legend, Professor Dot Griffiths. Professor Griffiths is the former Dean of the Business school, chair of an NHS trust, chair of a school governing body and a keen supporter of equal rights for all (in her role as Provost’s Envoy for Gender Equality). The panel was full of incredibly important people- Kerry and Angela, the part-time post docs and part-time co-founders of FungiAlert, Kate Ronayne, Head of Innovation at the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC), Toby Mildon, Head of Diversity and Inclusion for BBC digital (it does sound a bit W1A but he’s actually super impressive) and Professor Charlotte Williams, a Professor of Catalysis and Chemistry by day and a tech innovator at Econic Technologies by night. The only problem with the panel is that they all agree and are largely preaching to the converted- but that’s no bad place to be. A male audience member even asks whether there are fewer female start-ups because women are more intelligent, less arrogant and approach innovation with caution, resulting in higher financial gain- which the mainly female audience weren’t entirely comfortable with.

Professor Williams knows the recipe to a successful start-up. Econic Technologies is a spin-out from Imperial that a has raised over £ 8 million of funds, with female shareholders, CEOs and Prof. C. Williams, the Chief Scientific Officer. She credits almost all of this immense success to having women in senior positions launching a positive cycle of employment, where women who ‘know their stuff’ are hired based on merit and make the company a better place to be. Prof. Williams is sensationally well-prepared- her answers are cool and considered and just about everyone in the audience was queueing to talk to her at the end. She sees no difference in innovation or intellect between her male and female colleagues and students, but finds women are often reluctant to take ownership of their ideas. If you aren’t careful certain male personalities can dominate women leaders; taking money or credit for ideas, but the opposite is also true. She says there is no problem with being humble, it will not be a detriment to your success and has, in fact, been key to Econic’s good fortune.

The STFC employ 86 % men, and 0 of their scientific patents is held by a woman. Out of their 10 spin-out companies, there is one with a female CEO, and their board meetings have a completely different dynamic: she takes advice, listens and the business gets results. When CEOs populate boardrooms with people who look like them they’re not robust in modern society: diversity of ideas, gender, race and economic backgrounds is crucial for success. There are a few horror stories of single-sex boardrooms, where narrow-minded discussion has had disastrous results; such as an all-male team who developed an airbag for a standard man that proved a risk to the lives of women and children. We hear about interviewing techniques designed to probe that 30-something woman who might lose the company a few months to maternity leave and the reluctance of venture capitalists to invest in female led businesses and the power of semantics.

Are entrepreneurial personality traits not common to women? Kerry and Angela don’t agree: but they do think that being an entrepreneur has a more profound impact on a woman’s life (routine, family planning and caring responsibilities). Calling a man ‘bossy’ or ‘bullish’ is often not perceived negative thing, but if you refer to a woman as ‘forceful’ it’s not an attractive quality. Professor Williams points out that the majority of entrepreneurs are ‘risk-takers’- and this isn’t a single-sex characteristic. Toby is fascinated by the power of these adjectives, and, like Imperial, has reevaluated the language used in job adverts and gender of interviewing panels. Irrespective of your sex, whether you’re magic with money, staggering with statistics or delighted by databases; you can always delegate other roles, as Prof. Williams did with the financial part of her business.

What can they do? In Academic realms, STFC are trying to be proactive rather than reactive in scouting for new talent and ideas. They celebrate the need to invite men in to the conversation and be clear of why they’re doing it: everyone can see through the lip-service approach adopted by some top firms. The League of European Research Universities has an advice paper ‘Gendered Research and Innovation’. FungiAlert have triumphed in a range of start-up competitions and are super keen for all, men and women, to be given open-access the same opportunities. Circulate available opportunities, events and resources. Graduate students in Louisiana have recently busted the myth of baby brain, showing that women become primed for empathy and more strategic during and post-pregnancy. To empower all of her students and staff, Professor Williams recognises failure to find a right answer rather than failure of an individual.

“If it doesn’t get measured, it doesn’t get done” The BBC ‘tackled the bull by the horns’ (linguistics eat-your-heart-out): with only 26 % women in technology roles, they realised something was wrong. After the board was alerted to the shocking statistics, they ‘had a conversation’ and now have a 50:50 graduate intake. This is true too for evaluating the impact of a gender diverse workforce: show stats on how much more efficient and productive they are and perhaps we wouldn’t be spending our frozen Wednesday evenings in the Department of Civil Engineering.

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