BSW: Thursday 24/03

I was invited to ‘sit’ on a panel at Harris Academy Bermondsey (HAB), where photographer Leonora Saunders was opening her exhbition “10 % and rising“. Leonora has spent the last few years taking beautiful photographs of women in male dominated industries; not in a naff tongue-in-cheek fishnets/stilettos kind of way but in a “this is my job” kind of way. Inspired by Leonora’s work, the sixth form of Harris Academy have arranged two panel discussions to discuss the image of women in the media and science…it’s the last day of the Spring term, and HAB sixth form have AS levels to revise for. But don’t be worried about the students- this HAB cohort are tough, with over 80 % of them studying Maths at A-Level. HAB have achieved this with careers’ advice integrated into the curriculum and a business mentoring scheme for sixth form. 

The panel sessions are chaired by James Harling, Director of News and Current Affairs at the BBC, who doesn’t only make for a great chair but sounds like the best both on the planet. James has been at the BBC through some quite significant changes, and whilst he is proud of the diverse and inclusive environment the BBC has become he knows it is a work in progress. Under his reign the BBC has developed a Women in Leadership programme, which has elevated his eloquent and intelligent Director of Social Media to new levels of confidence and awareness. In their effort to diversifying the STEM workforce the BBC annually review the number of female scientists they have on an air. Her mentor at the BBC kept her aiming higher, addressing confidence in all aspects of ones professional life: networking skills, presenting skills, work-life balance. The move to social media is at a time when “all the unheard voices have been aired”. 

  • Nicky Thompson (Creative Director)
  • Kathryn Nawrockyi (Gender Equality Director at BITC)
  • Kiri Mellalieu (Makeup Artist)
  • Sarah Crook (PhD History Candidate focusing on women and work)
  • Ashley Jouhar (Creative Director)

The first panel consider “How significant is the media’s role in perpetuating female stereotypes?”. Kiri says she spends her days as a make-up artist being told to make someone look ‘camera ready’, in a kind-of, ‘no make-up make-up’. Hearing Ashley say it out loud makes the brainwashing capabilities of advertisers- the voices we hear on TV, the fonts we see in newspapers and the covers of magazines. They spend tens of thousands of pounds photographing models only to spend even more touching the photos up. Kathryn is adamant that businesses have to take on some responsibility. There have (recently) been some catastrophically awful adverts based on rape (Bloomingdale’s “Spike your best friend’s egg nog” and Cardiff’s “Ride me all day for £ 3).

Sarah evaluation of women through the ages only going back to the 1950s, which is a shame as the 1940s saw women building Waterloo Bridge. The concept of the ‘nuclear’ family of the 1950s, with a perfect stay-at-home mom having dinner on the table for her hard-working husband, wasn’t anywhere near the truth: London’s demographic was changing fast. But today, we’re taking a more of a look at ourselves. In the media, the Cannes Film Festival has created ‘Glassline’ a prize awarded to advertisers who shatter gender sterepotypes. 

“We can’t invite women into the club without changing the club”

The panel are basically agreed that companies and institutions spent too long thinking we need to fix women to fix a problem: throwing terms like mentoring, networking and leadership frameworks on to job applications to alleviate any responsibility. Michelle, a HAB student, wants young women to become more media literate- then it doesn’t matter how airbrushed the adverts are because they’ll understand it’s not real life. The BBC are changing the club. As the terrors in Brussels developed over Tuesday, the BBC were worried they didn’t have enough female security experts. They’re making an effort to empower women into leadership positions.

There’s some discussion about the Dove Campaign, which featured women of all sizes and ethnic backgrounds, but slight concern at this ‘feminist’ campaign selling skin-firming moisturiser and bronzer. James wraps panel 1 up by saying that since the BBC’s inception nearly 100-years ago there still hasn’t been a female director, nor has on led the Bank of England and nor has a woman captained the England Football Team.

I was on a panel discussing “How far does stereotyping affect women entering into STEM related industries and what progress has been made?”

  • Jessica Wade (PhD Physics Student and member of the ‘Stemmettes’) (FYI, love this description!)
  • Andrea Thompson (Trainee Surgeon)
  • Graham Stewart (Campaigns Officer for Prospect Trade Union)
  • Kathryn Nawrockyi (Gender Equality Director at BITC)
  • Rumina (current y12 student at HAB).

It was impressive to sit next to Rumina, who is studying Maths and Physics at A-level and intends to read physics at university. Rumina’s not only got her head in a textbook- she’s aware that it’s stigma against science at school (and at home) that could put less confident girls off. 

“How far does societal perception of women affect aspirations to go into STEM, and to what extent are they reinforced in the STEM industry?  What must change to increase the proportion of women in STEM?”

The first part of this question is discussed elsewhere on this blog- we’re (parents, teachers, friends) are imposing our own unconscious bias on young women and making them feel that STEM isn’t for them. Inside the ‘STEM industry’ we’re either moaning very loudly or in denial.

  • Education: parents, teachers you name it. Sure, money can be endlessly spent ‘inspiring’ the women into STEM degree but actually sustaining that enthusiasm and continuing to study a subject at A-level is a big ask. We really need to support specialist teachers.
  • Careers advisors need to be active and up-to-date with options for students.
  • We’ll never sustain more women in STEM unless more men take up languages.
  • We need young, attainable role models with whom the pupils can form relationship.
  • We need to start shouting about the increase in efficiency when a workforce is gender balanced (McKinsey say companies are 15 % more efficient with equal men and women, the Department of Chemistry at York showed a sustained increase in research output after winning an Athena Swan Gold award for gender equality and an article in the New Scientist  in January scientifically challenged the idea of ‘baby brain’. 
  • We need to move away from calling subjects like physics ‘hard’ and use words like challenging. We also need to stop the British belief that to be good at a subject you have to be born good. 
  • The nation will suffer if physics A-level is only seen as a ‘material-gain’ subject. The number of people getting A/A* in physics A- an average mark that is higher than for any other STEM subjects. 
  • We need to start early: girls are self-identifying as not scientists/ engineers by the age of 10 (3 % want to become engineers, 6 % chose scientist). 

“Why is STEM male dominant? What other barriers exist that stop young females going into STEM”

We’re not doing a very good job as physicists to get out there and meet real-life peol. A few weeks ago at the National Numeracy forum Baz from Citizen’s Bureau made the point the public either see science as ridiculous or unfathomable, and I think that’s part of the problem. We like to perpetuate the idea that the majority of physicists are geniuses- even the few that are female professors promote old white women who are grade 8 at a musical instrument, have a family, have a successful academic career- which doesn’t fit to almost 99 % of society. The government have tried some shocking things to fix it so far: the Big Bang Fair, the IBM Hack a Hairdryer campaign and EDF’s Pretty Curious- none of which are based on evidence, none of which have worked and all of which have costs hundreds of thousands of pounds.

Until diversity is recognised by school leadership and parents take their daughter’s careers seriously, boys will continue to dominate in lessons, ruin practicals and skew all of our statistics. Women aren’t getting the right qualifications to enter right degrees, jobs or apprenticeships.

“Do individual experiences of women working in male dominated industries (where females make up than less than 10% of the industry) highlight a sign of change or do barriers still exist in STEM?”

Kathryn makes the valid point that to change implicit biases we need to address issues face-on: we need to integrate structure within an institution that welcomes everyone in it. To this extent this is what the Athena Swan Charter does-making significant people in a department look at numbers and write a clear list of what will need to change. Athena applications consider the language in job adverts, whether or not there are women on an interviewing panel, opportunities for flexile working. To recruit for jobs universities ‘know their pool’- the gender make-up of the candidates who should be applying. If you take a medical student who may cost the government £100,000, is it really fair to leave during your mid-thirties (when you’re still a junior doctor?). 

When the BBC’s social media editor entered her first few senior meetings, she noticed she was being ignored. She was told that could be for one of three things- it could be because she’s Asian, it could be because she’s a young woman or it could be because she’s a woman. To overcome this madness she’s worked harder than ever before to become so brilliant that no one can ignore her.

.. And that pretty much describes Rumina. She’s keeping her family close- without them who would she share her success with? Rumina closes by saying we need to stop just telling women to keep going, and instead start celebrating them for how much they are achieving. 

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