Diversity News Round-up 23/03/2015

This round up is a little late. Here at UCLan Athena SWAN we’ve been very busy with attending conferences and running events. More on these on the blog soon, but for now, here’s the latest Diversity News Round-up. 🙂

This article presents the findings of an interesting new PLOS one study. In the research it was found that women are as likely as men to be appointed to jobs in Maths based fields, however, they are far less likely to apply. The research discussed in this article examined why this might be, by following PhD researchers and their interest in research based careers post their PhD. What they found was somewhat unsurprising. The researchers separated their participants into two groups; those from “well represented” groups (e.g. white males) and those from “under-represented groups” (e.g. women, men of colour, etc). What they found was that those from Under-represented groups lost more interest in faculty careers than did those from Well represented groups. The paper’s author is quoted as saying:

Differences are not explained by research productivity, self-confidence, or how the scientists describe their relationship with their adviser

It would seem then that something happens during PhD training that discourages people from “under-represented” groups from staying in STEMM when they complete. As the authors of the article state

Finding out why research-focused faculty careers have less appeal to members of under-represented groups, then – and why all groups lose interest in such careers over the course of their graduate training – would appear to be an important step toward diversifying academic science,

One such problem is highlighted in this blog post about the “Myth of the academic meritocracy”. This myth is pervasive through academia with almost everyone subscribing to the belief that success in academia is predicated on your merit as a researcher/scientist. This myth is fueled by the “cult of the individual” or the “lone genius”, discussed in the last Diversity News Round-up. As the author of this blog post says:

The fact of the matter is, we are trained to believe that the best, the brightest and the most hardworking get the most professional recognition, but this could not be further from the truth…

Aside from luck and various forms of privilege, the number one factor in academic success/survival is resilience in the face of rejection and failure…

They [those who have success in academia] struggle with their inner critic. They doubt their capabilities. At some point…they were told their ideas were bulls*%t. Their manuscripts and proposals get rejected. Their projects fail. Their paper submissions get ripped apart by ruthless reviewers…

An academic career is not for the feint of heart, but this idea that if you only work hard enough, if you are smart enough, write well enough, research better, makes things even more difficult for those from minority groups. When people come up against structural barriers to progression, for example women facing sexism or a disabled scholar facing disablism; these barriers can be interpreted as personal failure. These people then internalise a message that the reason they are not experiencing the success that they want, is because they are not good enough. And so they are pushed out.

I, at least, think this could be one explanation for why PhDs lose interest in faculty careers, and why it happens to a greater extent for under-represented groups. The author of this blog highlights the micro-aggressions faced by under-represented groups in academia.

The stress of managing minority status. The mentors, colleagues or students who question your abilities or directly disparage your presence, your work or both.

Being from an under-represented group puts you at a disadvantage, this is then compounded by discriminatory practices embedded within the structure of academia, but all the while you are being told that academia is a meritocracy, and so the problem must be you. Everyone needs to be resilient to work in academia, but those from under-represented groups need an extra level of resilience to succeed.

This is why I think the Athena SWAN agenda is particularly important. Those of us working in these roles, and anyone else who can, need to start challenging these myths and these structures, We need to reduce the load on under-represented groups, and also, ideally, I would like to change the culture of academia so success can be predicated on team-work, on collaboration. In short I’d like to see an end to the myth of a meritocracy and to the cult of the individual.


Diversity News Round-up 02/02/2015

**update 4/2/15: edited to add link to Katie Mack’s blog about working with others in Astrophysics**

Welcome to our second Diversity news round-up! In this fortnight’s piece we’ll discuss a recent visit to an Inside Government event and a few articles around the theme of wider societal issues being at the root of the problem of Diversity in H.E.

On 20th January I attended the Inside Government “Women in STEM” event. The event was held in central London in a lovely venue. The speaker line up was fantastic and I left the day with lots of ideas to add to our Athena SWAN agenda at UCLan. A particular highlight for me was the talk by Peter Main from the Institute of Physics. Peter’s talk was particularly powerful because he was the first person to make the connection between wider cultural issues and the issue of diversity in STEMM. He argued that we don’t need to change the girls, we need to change the culture in which they grow up. We need to address the messages they recieve about what girls and boys can and should do. We won’t begin to get more girls into STEMM subjects until we begin to address these wider cultural messages.

The twitter hashtag for the day was fairly active and covers many of the salient points from the conference, check it out if you want to know more about what was said on the day: #IGSTEM15.

This article from TES Connect also discusses similar thoughts. The focus of the article is on the fact that current public engagement with STEMM efforts are not working for girls. The author particularly notes that competitions do more harm for girls, actively putting them off STEMM subjects. This makes sense when considered in a wider societal context, as girls are raised to be communal in their approaches. This paper discusses further the idea of communally mindedness and STEMM. The authors argue that girls are socialised to work together and be more communally focussed; girls and women prioritise working together and helping others. I think that this is one of the biggest factors discouraging women within the STEMM workforce. In H.E. specifically competition is a big part of the job; competing for funding, for promotions, etc. Add to this the narrative of big accomplishments by singular people (as in the awarding of Nobels) and the pursuit of excellence in STEMM subjects is all about individual performance and competition. This is not a familiar environment for young women and often goes against the grain of years of social conditioning to work collaboratively. To address this we need to start being more open about the true nature of STEMM work; to emphasize the teamwork involved and that increasingly cross-disciplinary work is where innovation happens. And to highlight that working in STEMM fields is about ‘helping people’ and furthering society. This post from Katie Mack (@AstroKatie on twitter) discusses the ‘Lone genius hypothesis’ and her experiences working in Astrophysics.

This article reports on research that shows that fields where ‘brilliance’ or ‘genius’ are valued and lauded over hardwork, show an under-representation of women. This is true within STEMM subjects, but is also true of Humanities such as Philosophy and Economics. We need to change the narrative around STEMM from one of ‘geniuses’ making amazing discoveries by accident of their genius; to emphasise the hardwork involved in most scientific endeavor.

In this list of ten ways to increase diversity in tech, number 1 recommends a focus on the culture within a workplace, rather than the ‘leaky pipeline’ narrative. A focus on the pipeline, means we are viewing women as the problem. We need to find out why they drop out. Whereas a focus on culture means we examine the problems in the system which are actively discouraging women.

It’s encouraging to me to see that within the community we are beginning to place some emphasis on wider socialisation issues to explain the lack of diversity in STEMM fields. Women don’t make decisions about their working lives outside of this social context and if we want to address the problems women face, we need solutions that focus on this wider social context.

Fortnightly Diversity news round-up

I thought it might be interesting to have a regular post on the blog where I discuss the interesting things I’ve been reading. With this in mind, welcome to the first fortnightly Diversity news round-up. Here I will list the articles, blogs, reports and papers I’ve been reading; and try to link the different ideas together. A lot of what we read on Diversity in STEM/HE has links with other things. The issues are related and solutions are too. With that in mind, I wanted to have a space to make those connections and open discussions. That’s what the round-up will be.

First up is this post in National Geographic which discusses the consequences of a lack of women in STEMM. It places particular importance on healthcare research

“the model used in biomedical research to design drugs and products for everyone has been predicated on the physiology of an average-size male….”

This over-looking of gender as a potential factor in health research has serious consequences, for example in heart disease, women show different symptoms than men, which leads to mis-diagnoses or under-diagnosis. The article says that in the US the NIH is now redressing this by requiring all trails it funds to include female animals, female tissues and cells, and to consider sex as a variable in experiment design and analysis.

The article then goes on to discuss how the sex of the researcher can impact study findings, citing research that shows rats respond differently to male and female researchers. The cited study found that the pain response in rats was reduced due to stress when being handled by male researchers. This finding has implications for the results of many clinical studies.

Finally the article makes this point:

“What we think of as ‘science problems’ affect everyone – children, women, and men. What science decides to solve and for whom things are designed have a lot to do with who’s doing the scientific enquiry.”

The author argues that having more women in STEM will solve some of these problems.

This article on the Dark Side of Impact provides an interesting look at how women in research are treated. The author talks of the harassment and abuse she has faced online as a consequence of her research being reported in the news. Is this a problem that is going to grow? We know that women face much more abuse online than men, and as researchers are called upon to produce research which has ‘real world impact’ more women will be placed into a public spotlight. I think this is an important issue to consider and something that women in research need to be aware of as their research profile becomes more well known.

Then there are these two articles on Unconscious bias: the first is a paper which examines people’s responses to evidence of unconscious bias and the second is an article looking at ‘Overcoming Unconscious Bias’. The paper provides some disheartening evidence that when people are presented with clear evidence of unconscious bias within STEM they either deny it’s existence or try to justify it through biological or social explanations. This denial of a problem and justification of the existence of sexism in STEM were more likely to come from men than women. The paper is excellent and uses a novel methodology to assess its research questions. I recommend that you have a read of it. What the paper does is provide a cautionary tale to all of us working in diversity in STEM (and beyond) that education about biases alone is not sufficient to change entrenched attitudes.

The Overcoming Unconscious bias article on the other hand provides some heartening evidence that education can help.

“Giving examples and presenting study results is most striking and convincing, particularly because we are scientists.”

The article provides some suggestions for how to combat the obvious bias faced by women in science. It gives the example of the changes made by the ERC working group on gender bias; pre-formatted CVs for grant applications, and applicants only needing to list a selection of their publications rather than all of them: “We want the evaluator to focus on quality not quantity”. This is an interesting idea, and I wonder how this could be implemented in promotion criteria within HEIs. A focus on quality would solve some of the issues caused by taking a career break (like maternity leave). Another example of good practice in the article is that of AWTH Aachen University in Germany. This institution has implemented a compulsory gender and diversity course for it’s first year undergraduate civil engineering students. The course has been well received, and I wonder how we could implement similar initiatives in our HEIs.

That’s it for this round-up. Any thoughts?