Supporting women in STEM: Your ideas needed!

Digital ScienceALD Sponsor Digital Science held an event as part of their Ada Lovelace Day celebrations, Championing Success and Avoiding the Echo Chamber, looking at how we can support women in STEM. The event covered various issues, such as women and men working in STEM (and the leaky pipeline), how to encourage people to mentor, finding more role models, the media perception of women in STEM, and finally, how we can move to doing things, rather than just talking about them. There is a teaser video plus all nine talks and the panel discussion on their blog, and a variety of articles and contributions on the issues raised.

In her talk, Dr Suze Kundu suggested that we collectively make a plan to encourage people to do more, and Digital Science have put together an article of what we can each do to help bring about equality. The ideas so far include:

  • not making women feel different for being in STEM
  • using yourself as a role model in talks
  • getting support from men at the top
  • not being afraid to be yourself and embracing femininity (if you want to)
  • encouraging diversity to get rid of stereotypes

We are now asking for people to share their ideas for practical steps we can all take to support women in STEM, and have started a Google document for all your contributions. Please share your thoughts  there have been some excellent responses so far!

Raising Horizons to highlight women in earth sciences

Raising HorizonsOur friends the TrowelBlazers have launched a new project, Raising Horizons, to highlight the work of women in archeology, palaeontology and geology. In collaboration with Leonora Saunders, and supported by Prospect Union, 14 women working in those fields today will be photographed as a historic counterpart, to create a visual connection to the past and to celebrate diversity:

Raising Horizons is about revealing the real face of geo-science past and present, sharing its hidden heritage, and promoting 21st century diversity.

As well as celebrating individuals, Raising Horizons  also seeks to show that women in science aren’t isolated or alone; through mentoring, training and collaborating, they have always created networks of their own.

An education project designed to bring the past to life and to challenge stereotypes, the collection will be exhibited across the UK and online, demonstrating how the earth sciences are filled with female role models. “Raising Horizons is one way that – together – we can act to re-set imaginations on who geo-scientists are,” says TrowelBlazers’ Indigogo project, which goes on to say:

  • Backing Raising Horizons will create a valuable resource showcasing diversity in geo-science past and present.
  • Curated at exhibition venues around the UK and online, the project can reach broad audiences.
  • Producing interviews that will be the foundation of a future oral history archive.
  • By spotlighting the power of connections and networks, we can put a focus on forming new frameworks of support via future TrowelBlazers mentoring and training programmes and bursaries.

Raising Horizons now needs £10,000 to fund photography, and run exciting public events and talks. You can watch them talk more about the project (also below) and about women in science in their video.

You’ve got a little under 13 days to contribute to the project, which needs another £4,000 to meet its target, and you can read more about some of the women who will be featured on the Trowelblazers’ blog.


Increasing women in STEM: Just a woman’s issue?

Credit: University of Exeter

Credit: University of Exeter

by Sarah Hearne

Universities around the world have recognised that there is a dearth of women in STEM. In various countries actions are being taken in an attempt to address this. In the UK and Ireland the Athena SWAN scheme has proven popular and is starting to have an impact. Buoyed by its success, Australia has recently begun its own scheme, modelled on Athena SWAN, called SAGE (Science Australia Gender Equity). Currently a pilot scheme, it involves universities and scientific research organisations from around the country who have two years to develop an Athena SWAN Bronze Award application.

I have attended various “Women in STEM” events over the years, the most recent of which was the formal launch of the launch of my university’s Athena SWAN program. All of these events have been insightful, inspiring and educational. And all these events have been predominantly attended by women. Even in this most recent event, where the good attendance by men was noted, they accounted for a mere 20% of attendees1.

Beyond the low interest by men in increasing the number of  women – and by extension, increasing diversity in general – in STEM, I have noticed a concerning theme: Men seem to feel the need to justify their interest. It’s not enough to care that 50% of the human race are being systematically disadvantaged due to nothing more than their gender, they rationalise their support through some ‘personal’ connection to the issue. Commonly, they cite the fact that they have wives, daughters, or granddaughters that are or will be affected. Every man who has explained the source of their interest has begun with something along the lines of ‘now I have daughters I see how big a problem sexism is and I want to make things better for when they get older’.

This is a noble sentiment and one that should be applauded, but what concerns me is that I’ve not once seen a man stand up and say that their interest comes because they have a son. Where are the fathers concerned about whether their sons will have just as much involvement in their own children’s lives as their partners, or who worry their sons will feel pressured to take a job that is high paying but unfulfilling, simply because men are supposed to be the breadwinner. I certainly have never heard a man stand up and say they’re interested in diversity simply because it affects them in some way. Or that they have obligations outside work that mean they can’t work late, or need to unexpectedly take time off, or simply want a work-life balance that may not be tolerated when you’re on the top rungs of the career ladder.

Until men start seeing this as an issue that affects them just as much as women I don’t see how we are going to make any meaningful changes. Men are limited just as much by societal constraints and expectations as women, just in different ways. Men are expected to work instead of look after their children, which means that they miss out on many important events in their child’s life. It means that they feel unable to take career choices that may be rewarding but are not seen as ‘masculine’ enough. It means that their mental health suffers when they don’t feel they meet society’s expectation of what it means to be a man, but because ‘real men don’t cry’ they suffer in silence, the result of which is that men are far more likely to commit suicide than women.

Another issue that comes from assuming this is a ‘women’s issue’ is that the emphasis is placed on getting women into traditionally male roles. I am all for this, but I am also all for getting more men into traditionally female roles. By solely focusing on getting women into ‘male’ fields we are implicitly (and sometimes explicitly) saying that this is where the worthwhile jobs are to be found. Don’t be a nurse, be a doctor. Don’t be a PA, be a manager. Without a commensurate push to get men into traditional women’s roles all we are saying is that women who want to be successful should be more like men. And this leads to yet more problems…

Credit: Cydcor

Credit: Cydcor

Anyone who is interested in sexism in the workplace will know of all the ways women ‘jeopardise’ their careers. They only apply for jobs when they meet all the criteria, unlike men who will apply when they only meet some; they are timid negotiators so end up with lower salaries than men who are more aggressive negotiators; they don’t speak up in meetings, perhaps because they are interrupted more, so their ideas are not heard as often. The solutions given are, whether explicit or not, to essentially ‘be more like the men’. Improving these skills is not necessarily bad advice, but the reasoning behind it is. It’s saying that the male way is the best way and if you want to be the best then you need to be like a man. But why? Why do we think that men have got it right about everything? Why not challenge this assumption and see if it stands up to scrutiny?

Getting women into STEM subjects is, to a large extent, a pilot study for a bigger project which is to increase diversity in all its myriad forms and in all fields of endeavour: gender, race, sexual orientation, physical and mental diversity. It is hoped that if workplaces can ‘crack the nut’ of sexism then the lessons learned and the schemes implemented will apply just as well to these other areas. However, by focusing on a uni-directional flow of women into male-dominated fields we are only looking at half the picture. To create true equality of opportunity we need to include men. We need to ask why there aren’t many male PAs, male nursery school teachers, male care-home assistants, male nurses and what we can do to make these roles more attractive to them. For one thing, if all the women are off working in STEM who’s going to do the jobs they’ve left? But, more seriously, working out how to get women into well-paid prestigious roles is the easy bit, getting men to work in ‘women’s’ jobs is the hard part. If we can work out how to fix that problem, then we may be onto something.

1 I counted 16 men and 65 women. My counts may be off by one or two people due to my view being blocked but I was sat at the back so had as good a view of the room as was possible as an audience member.

Williamina Fleming and Annie Jump Cannon: Harvard computers

Guest post by Sue Bowler, for the Royal Astronomical Society, Platinum Sponsor of Ada Lovelace Day Live 2016.

Continuing with their series of articles on early women members of the Royal Astronomical Society published in Astronomy and Geophysics, Sue Bowler discusses the contributions of Williamina Fleming and Annie Jump Cannon in photographic astronomy.

Photograph of Annie Jump Cannon at Harvard College Observatory

Annie Jump Cannon at Harvard College Observatory (Smithsonian Institution Archives)

Towards the end of the nineteenth century, Harvard College Observatory employed a team of women to analyze the spectra of stars, an endeavour that resulted in the standard classification scheme for stars, still used today. Williamina Fleming, Annie Jump Cannon and Henrietta Leavitt stand out among the ‘Harvard computers’, so named because their work was to carry out the many repetitive calculations necessary for scientific astronomy.

Edward Pickering was the Director of Harvard College Observatory at a time when the new field of photographic astronomy required careful measurement of the position of stars and their spectra on large glass plates. The role of computer was a lowly one, and it paid very poorly, lower than a factory girl’s wage. But it appealed to educated women, often the products of the new colleges such as Vassar and Wellesley that taught the sciences and even astronomy.

Photograph of Williamina Fleming

Williamina Fleming (The New England magazine (1887), p. 166).

Annie Jump Cannon was among those who came to Harvard as a computer, attracted by a role that offered employment and scientific stimulation. She developed a spectral classification system adopted by the International Astronomical Union in 1922 and ended her career at Harvard as a world-renowned astronomer.

Cannon’s work built on that of Williamina Fleming, a married woman from Scotland abandoned by her husband in America. She was Pickering’s housekeeper before working at the Observatory and, as well as considerable achievements in observational astronomy and spectral classification of stars, she organized the computers, in a role we would now recognize as something between office manager and head of a research group.

Both Fleming and Cannon were made honorary members of the RAS before women could become Fellows. Their work has lasted, demonstrating the contribution that women could make at a time when astronomy in the US was becoming a profession as well as an interest.

You can read more about Annie Jump Cannon in the journal Astronomy and Geophysics, and Sue Nelson wrote about Williamina Fleming for Astronomy and Geophysics, a longer version of which is also in our book, A Passion for Science.

Bowler, S. (2016), “Annie Jump Cannon, stellar astronomer”, Astronomy & Geophysics, 57(3) 3.14-3.15.