With feminism and equal pay becoming trending terms in modern day society, it’s no surprise that International Women’s Day has crept in to modern day society, with gender becoming (a massive) part of the agenda. Championing women in science and rediscovering the joys of Eventbrite means I became aware of an awful lot of activities around King’s and Imperial, so armed with a million PDF tickets, a few apples and a range of power packs and iPhone wires, I sampled a wide range of the celebrations.
I had breakfast with the Women’s Institute at Britain Thinks (headquarters Somerset House, West Wing). Note: the first ‘non-rural’ WI opened in 2003, ‘rural’ was removed from their manifesto in 2013, and whilst I’ve always had to it down as something confined to the countryside/ episodes of the Archers, the urban enthusiasm is strong. And when I hear about their history, work and efforts, I can see why.
The WI is a non-political organization with over 22,000 members- but they’ve achieved more over the past a hundred years than any government. They’ve improved women’s dental health (although I’m not entirely happy that I can now attend the dentist), they’ve campaigned for equal pay, they’ve integrated pain relief to child birth, women are now able to have cancer screenings, have access to family planning and champion midwives. To celebrate their centenary, they have arranged a survey, conducted by Britain Thinks, polling their members on opinions and activities. The WI have a loyal membership and received a large number of responses. The majority of their responders are retired (63%), a heart-warming 94 % have volunteered in the past 12 months, 36 % have caring responsibilities and massive 80 % want more women in STEM. The key findings are available on the WI website, but it was genuinely inspirational to hear about what these women do. Present at the breakfast meeting (FYI officially my favourite time to have a meeting) were representatives from Girl Guiding and the Young Women’s Trust (both of whom by the way are young men), the Fawcett Society, the NCT and Rosa UK. Rosa a UK fund for girls and women, which is particularly interesting to me as I haven’t heard of it. For the first time this year their grant proposals have included initiatives to support and encourage women in STEM. Whilst we had breakfast we discussed how impressive the achievements were: how much change you can effect without walking the corridors of Parliament. But, as the WI pointed out: ‘non-political’ doesn’t mean ‘not-politically minded’- and these women are opinionated. Despite the lack of day-passes to the Houses of Parliament they’ve made big changes for women across the country whilst maintaining significant enrichment from all aspects of their lives. We’re only a stones throw from Waterloo Bridge, a bridge built during the second world war by women. WI members are incredibly efficient, whilst not liking to be marked with terms like ‘opinionated’, they save libraries, limit plastic bag distribution and support women’s initiatives across the UK.
How do issues get on the WI’s radar? Well, it is incredibly diplomatic: resolutions are submitted by members to a long-list, then condensed to a short-list by the WI board, then voted on by all 22,000 members.
With such a broad range of sectors covered, the cross-croissant debate was incredibly exciting.
- Mothers are tired: with uneven caring and housework responsibilities, 2016 women are still time-poor.
- The Young Women’s Trust are publishing a report on Monday investigating the pay gap for female apprentices: whilst there are more women entering apprenticeships than men, they fair worse over the course of the placement and often don’t compete.
- The unclear advice on child benefits and flexible working are really impacting women’s role in the workplace, with it often being hard to find out what is on offer in institutions. After women return to work they’re often better at time management, more stable and committed and more efficient, but companies and institutions need to be aware of this when writing employment laws.
It wasn’t far to walk to my new home on the Strand. My next celebration of International Women’s Day was seven floors up in the Department of Physics, where Prof. Peter Main (or as I am tempted to call him, Sir Peter Main), Head of Physics at King’s College London gave a great seminar to the Women in Physics society about how to effectively populate physics classrooms with young women. Ever since Prof Main arrived at the IOP (2002), he’s put gender on their agenda, long before that (1985) the country decided to increase the number of women studying A-Level physics. Have the hundreds of thousands of initiatives worked? Well- no. Actually, they’ve anti-worked, at A-Level the proportion of women in physics labs has decreased from 24 to 21 %. It’s not just physics though, a national gendering of subjects keeps the girls away further maths and the boys out of philosophy. The government approach has been to inspire and excite young minds with an army of relatively untrained science ambassadors and temporary, overwhelmingly expensive three-day science festivals. If instead this money had been invested in education- particularly the recruitment and retention of good science teachers- we could be in a different situation. Unlike the science and engineering they supposedly promote, these projects have been built without evidence, with unlimited funding and with the full-support of the government. We’ve fixed ‘Girls in STEM’ by assuming we know the answers before doing any proper analysis.
The arrival of the National Pupil Database allowed the IOP to track students through educational institutions and revealed just how much more likely you were to study physics at an all girls independent school to a mixed comprehensive. The IOP then evaluated freedom of ‘choice’ in progression from GCSE to A-Level across six different subjects (physics, economics, mathematics, biology, English and psychology) at every school in the country and found that 81 % were exacerbating gender stereotypes. There were big local differences, with one area making mistakes in 4/6 areas. Other studies have confirmed Prof Main’s terror: ASPIRES at King’s and UPMAP. His team weren’t happy and armed with their greatest minds fought back and launched Improving Gender Balance, making three different strategic interventions to 21 schools across the country. IGB worked with physics departments, teachers and whole schools.
Peter Main compares the messages that boys and girls are faced with everyday, from the chocolate bars we buy to the magazines we read. He’s right about role-models: not everyone can own a Rolls Royce. More often than not the incredible biographies that precede a scientific breakthrough are far-and-away from the audience they’re talking to. And celestial celebrities like Brian Cox? Well, he increased the number of people with A-Level physics studying physics at university- but he didn’t do much for the gender make up of sixth-forms.
Where do schools go wrong? School culture and subtle ‘everyday sexism’ type language whereby maths is described as a ‘boys’ subject’ and art as girls’ stick. Whilst girls aren’t confident in their own ability they are no less capable than their male counterparts, but labels like ‘difficult’ tarnish the reputations of maths and physics. Parents are more more important than teenagers give them credit for: the advice is significant and often reinforces just about everything else the school is getting wrong. Alongside advice, the profession of the local circles children move in will likely determine their ‘STEM fate’. Young people have no idea about getting a job in the real world, which isn’t really their fault as careers advice is, on the whole, terrible. Without proper management, boys can dominate lessons and stifle out the questions and learning of the girls. Without gender diversity being an issue for senior management, schools will never be best preparing their pupils for the big bad world of work.
So what can work? Well, better teaching (see my question to parliament last week) where students can trust their teachers’/ form relationships, defuse the perception of physics being a ‘difficult’ subject and abolishing the madness of triple science GCSE. There’s a common misconception that just getting more female physics teachers and heads of science will rewrite the ratio, but all the evidence points to quality being the most important factor. We can improve awareness of our own innate unconscious bias, we can manage lessons and classrooms with tact and we can integrate careers advice into science lessons, rather than providing it reactively to those that come after their GCSEs.
After introducing the JUNO charter for universities, Prof Main is set to revolutionise schools with a gender diversity assessment there too: watch this space. From the classroom to the boardroom, for there to be any real change we need to be clear what we want to achieve and why we want to achieve it. Hopefully from the end of this year, Prof Main’s Opening Doors Ambassadors will take all the lessons the IOP have learnt over the past 12 years into schools. This will be first at a local level and then nationally, creating a network of Women in Science student communities. Like lots of the girls I’ve connected to on my ‘outreach journey’, a series of supportive relationships allowing the school girls to identify themselves in the incoming scientists will be crucial. Opportunities for students to take their real-life work and inspire genuine research in schools will inspire and elevate beyond the confines of often sexist textbooks.
Amidst the catalogue of errors created by big corporate organisations and the government to recruit women into STEM, the IOP dream team of Rowson and Plaister have two awesome videos they show to groups of girls:
Feeling inspired yet? I certainly was (well, that could have been exhuastion)- but I was really only 2/6 through an epically long day. King’s College London’s E&D committee, chaired by Gender Champion Professor Evelyn Welch, arranged an afternoon with Sabrina Clarke, the Founder of Build Global. Aside from being an eminent art historian, Welch is mother to Florence (of machine fame). In 2016 EY estimate we’re 117 years from a gender balanced workforce. Even before the invited speaker began, the packed floor was alive with the words of King’s College staff. Sabrina talks us through her ideas for creative leadership, whereby all of women’s contributions are equally recognised. She praises companies that have got it right (General Motors and Pepsi Co) and details the necessary steps to achieve this. Where there are problems in leadership positions and it’s difficult to fix a leaky pipeline, managers have got to ‘make space for the pipeline’ through deputising, job rotation and review.
Done on the Strand, I made myself West for Imperial’s Gender Summit, Reception for Women at Imperial and the Undergraduate Women in Physics drinks/ dinner. On the way to the ‘Summit’, I stopped in on Dr. Foster to pick up a magnet so strong it would wipe your mobile phone and a tube so long it made the rest of my day difficult. For the 2016 Athena application, Imperial have conducted surveys, hosted focus groups and welcomed contributions from 500 students and staff on what it’s like to be a woman at Imperial. Athena Swan is a big deal. The proposals made within it are made public (rather similar to the government’s proposals on publishing data about the gender pay gap) and the universities involved are compelled to act upon them. The family friendly policies, reputation, inclusive and supportive program for returning fellows is well received, but the pipeline still leaks and Imperial are determined to fix it. The findings are outlined on the Imperial website here.
The reception was like a mini fringe festival with the soul focus on the successes of Imperial’s women both past and present. The bubbles were flowing and the main entrance alive with acapella groups, dance troupes and belly dancing societies. In between the stands promoting impressive women across the campus were the works of three Althea Imperial innovation competitors. The crowd were welcomed by Professor Alice Gast, president of Imperial, who echoed the words of Marie Curie: “Life is not easy for any of us. But what of that? We must have perseverance and above all confidence in ourselves. We must believe that we are gifted for something and that this thing must be attained.” There were speeches by Professor Dot Griffiths, the burning flame behind the majority of gender equality activities taking place across SW7 and Lucinda Sandom-Allum, president of the student union.
Finally I arrived (science equipment and all) at the pub, where me and the undergrad women in physics who could make it the whole 1 km to the Hereford arms had a surprisingly civilized supper (we made it no where near my upper limit on the bar tab) and were joined by non-other than celebrity panelist Ben Fernando.
…and then this made the day amazing: