BSW: Tuesday 15/03

Don’t bother reading this! Listen to the fab podcast here. (Thanks Stuart!)

On minimal sleep and maximal gummy bears, I headed off to South Kensington to meet 11 Croatian teachers and take them on a tour of Imperial, to meet a UK admissions tutor and to visit the Reach Out Lab. Little did I know physics was already home to a wonderful Slovenian student, who aided in translation of my SW7 adventure. They were a great group- part of some an Erasmus grant to visit London schools and universities- super keen to learn more about how their students could get in to university in the UK and eager to see our labs and lecture theatres. We had a brilliant 45 minutes with Jane Marshall, whose comprehensive guide to mastering your personal statements is available online here and the video (which I’ve written about before) is online here. Jane speaks fast- really fast. She can fit more words in a few minutes than my post doc friends can manage in an hour. Her talk includes the best advice I’ve ever heard on successfully applying to university.   

I skipped across town and continued my prep for Cavendish Inspiring Women’s panel discussion, Success: is it all in the mind? CiW have an awesome booklet that they’ve distributed to over 4,000 school students about What’s Exciting in Physics. The event was sensationally well organised by CiW and took me inside St John’s, one of the most beautiful colleges on planet Earth. The ‘purpose’ of the discussion (other than to warrant a trip to Cambridge with my mom) was:

  • To explore what success in science means, and whether this impacts women differently to men
  • To raise awareness of unconscious/cognitive biases that affect women in science
  • To comment on what can be done, by both oneself and by institutions, to improve the diversity of women in science.

I’d been invited to take part on the panel but Hannah Stern, a kiwi PhD student at Cambridge who works alongside my former colleague, Dr. Stuart Higgins. Stuart is one of the most professional young men I know, and today we had sound checks, an event plan and awesome introductions. The introductions and ‘background reading’ that Stuart had done was incredible, which was ideal as my co-panellist DAME ATHENE DONALD had only that day blogged on the inadequacies of poor chair people. I feel like hyperventilating when I even type ‘co-panellist, Dame Athene..’.  She was the first female physics professor in the UK and amongst her many insane list of accolades and responsibilities is a practising experimental scientist, master of Churchill College and has published over 200 scientific papers. Stuart was incredibly kind in our introductions, and managed (somehow) to make my micro list of achievements somehow last as long as the other speakers, Dr Tom Stafford and Professor Michelle Ryan.  Michelle is a professor of social and organisational psychology at the university of oxford where she’s come up with the concept of the ‘glass cliff’ and Tom lectures psychology at Sheffield, so I took my mom, a consultant liaison psychiatrist and remarkably sensational academic along for moral support. 

I was LITERALLY terrified- two professors, one senior lecturer, two people who could likely read my mind, one person whose mind was so beyond mine it was almost on another planet. My mom says I handled it pretty well and despite showing every emotion on my face I managed to somehow finish the 90 minutes without hideously embarrassing myself. Michelle has her hands in lots of different pies, relevant to this panel she’s involved with research on the effectiveness of role models, women’s ambition in the workplace, the gender wage gap, social identity and sexuality. Tom knows textbook definitions on implicit bias and unconscious bias, and he and Michelle both agree that there is very little that can be achieved with the overwhelming amount of Unconscious Bias training available at universities and beyond. Whilst we can’t really do anything about our implicit biases, we can be educated in the fact that they exist- and in awareness act in such a way to overcome them.

The discussion was structured like Radio 4’s Question Time, with three main themes for debate and audience contribution.

THEME 1: Success and self-confidence (20 – 25 mins)

All: How is success defined in science?

Michelle: Do you think women have a different interpretation of success in science?

Tom: How does self-confidence and issues (such as the imposter syndrome)       impact success in science?

Athene: Are universities projecting the right image of success in science?

Jess: How do young women (school pupils) see success in science?

THEME 2: Society and stereotypes (20 – 25 mins)

All: How does the environment around women impact on their success?

Tom: How do the implicit biases of others affect women in science?

Jess: Do you encounter stereotypes/biases in your work with young people and schools?

Athene: Have societal biases changed with time? (Are things improving?)

Michelle: Could women in science be affected by the factors you have encountered in your research on the glass cliff?

THEME 3: What can we do? (20 – 25 mins)

All: How do we further the success of women in science?

Jess: What works, what doesn’t work, in terms of science outreach?

Athene: What are universities doing? Could they do more?

Michelle: Can we harness our biases in a positive way to promote diversity in science?

Tom: How can we help ourselves to avoid our own implicit biases?

Michelle’s research into the ‘Glass Cliff’ extends the idea of the the glass ceiling, an unseen barrier to women rising to positions of leadership, that once you get to the top you’re more likely to risk criticism of failures. We spoke briefly about the value society places on different careers: how in countries like Eastern Europe and and Russia computing and medicine were gender balanced because they were seen as a low status career, and how implicit bias varies in different regions of the world.  They also change with time- in the 40s (WWII) women were the engineers that built Waterloo bridge, in the 50s they were housewives, today we’re more gendered than ever before. The complications around defining success in science arise because it’s all too easy to assume it can be done on publication count alone (or various letters after your name)- but the best scientists are those that empower and support others and create/nurture a positive ‘team’. The highest impact research comes from effectively managed (happy) teams. This chimes well with my experiences so far- unfortunately the personality traits associated with success in science don’t often overlap with and supportive or friendly environment. We spoke about ways corporate led media facing interactions had got it wrong: the EU’s ‘Science: it’s a Girl Thing’, Hack a Hairdryer, Pretty Curious and Marvel’s new Women in STEM push. It wasn’t all doom-and-gloom. There are the obvious support services required to maintain a female friendly workforce: a crèche, help for returning new mothers, flexible working, paternity leave, transparent pay levels, sensitive wording in job adverts, gender balanced interview panels- and there are the larger scale societal brain shifts that need to happen too. In the classroom, teachers and senior leadership need to acknowledge equality and diversity as an issue (perhaps with a strong nudge from OFSTED).

Athene was more inspirational than anything I’ve ever experienced: she’s got more knowledge than an encyclopaedia and has written opuses about what needs to change. Her Women in Science reading list is a great starting point for those wanting to effect change. I felt more honoured when she called me ‘Jess’ and seemed to be nodding with the points I made than I’ve felt by anything for years. Athene started life at Camden School for Girls and started at Cambridge in 1971 for her BA. She hasn’t really left, other than a post doc in Cornell, and she’s received over 20 prizes and honours. Like my top woman in STEM Prof Jenny Nelson, Dame Athene is an FRS.  Like my mom, she has got more honorary degrees than most academics have degrees.

After much insight from the inquisitive audience, a slight social media debate, a PhD candidate asked Athene what advice she’d give to women progressing in physics who (now) knew what they were facing: “believe in yourself and get on with it!”.

My notes for the day are available online here.

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