Has the leaky pipeline been fixed?

Guest post by Sarah Hearne

The ‘leaky pipeline’ is a familiar metaphor to those interested in discussions of women in STEM. The pipeline – the process of going from school to undergraduate level and on into academia until reaching professorship – is seen to leak people, particularly women and minorities, at each successive rung of the academic ladder. Despite its ubiquity, there are growing concerns that the leaky pipeline metaphor is harmful and inaccurate.

A recent paper by David Miller and Jonathan Wai suggests that the pipeline is no longer leaking. The paper examined the percentage of students who go from undergraduate level to PhD level using retrospective analyses of data from US citizens. The data itself seems sound, as do the analyses, but I am concerned about the conclusions drawn.  The authors found that while women, in general, used to be awarded PhDs at a lower rate than their male undergraduate counterparts, this is no longer the case: the sexes have converged. This means that male and female undergraduates are equally likely to continue their academic studies. Wonderful news! The pipeline has been fixed!

Well, not so fast. The paper has examined a very particular point in the academic career: the transition from the undergraduate level where a student is really trying to gauge their level of interest in a subject while putting off the whole ‘find a job’ thing for a few years, to the postgraduate level where they feel they may have some real interest and aptitude for their chosen field and would like to pursue it further (and maybe put off that whole ‘find a job’ thing for a few more years!). While obviously it is great to know that women are no longer systematically biased against when it comes to being accepted for PhDs, that step is only one on the long route to becoming a fully fledged academic. And, as the authors point out:

“…the pipeline metaphor may be an apt description of academic transitions after the Ph.D. Academic pathways are considerably more rigid after the Ph.D. degree than before the bachelor’s degree.” [p8]

The paper is cautious and focused in its conclusions, which is as scientific research should be. However, from an online article written by one of the co-authors, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the leaky pipeline metaphor was now dead:

“…new research of which I am the coauthor shows this pervasive leaky pipeline metaphor is wrong for nearly all postsecondary pathways in science and engineering.”

The paper, however, does not say that, and the data doesn’t support such an assertion. It’s bad enough when press officers overhype research due a lack of understanding of the work, but to see an actual author misrepresent their research is extremely disappointing.

So, as much as we might wish it to be true, this paper doesn’t support the idea that the leaky pipeline has been completely sealed. But what about its use as a metaphor? Well, there are two sides to any metaphor: those of accuracy and utility. It appears that despite some areas where cautious optimism may be applied, as shown above, the metaphor is still largely accurate. But is it useful?

The main problem with the metaphor is that it implies that the leak needs to be fixed. Yet the pipeline must leak. In the UK alone there were 98,000 students accepted onto STEM course in 2013. There aren’t enough academic positions for all those students to be employed, and the country would be significantly worse off if all those students decided to work in academia rather than take their skills to other employment sectors where they would make a beneficial contribution.

Specifically in the context of women in STEM, there are concerns that the leaky pipeline metaphor is harming the discussion. That by saying that every woman who leaves academic STEM is a loss, a great deal of internalised pressure is placed on women to pursue careers they are unhappy with and it creates a feeling a failure when they decide to follow a different career path. As Andrew Penner points out, by referring to the leaky pipeline:

“we risk trivializing the contributions of women and men who choose to pursue other endeavors when we define success as becoming a STEM professor at a research university“.

Matthew Cannady and colleagues recently examined the way in which the ‘leaky pipeline’ metaphor fails. They explain that:

“. . . a metaphor positing that those who “leak out,” presumably into a drain, are lost to STEM fails to recognize that there are careers that may not require a STEM bachelor’s degree but do require STEM knowledge and skills and contribute to the public good. The fact that the pipeline metaphor does little to illuminate the paths of mathematics or science educators, or scientifically literate citizens, further challenges its usefulness.” [pp446]

The metaphor, while sadly accurate, appears to be more of a hindrance than a help when trying to discuss and improve women’s representation in academic science. It may be time to find a new metaphor, one that properly appreciates that there are many career choices that allow women, and men, to make use of their scientific training. However, it remains a fact that women are still being excluded from the higher echelons of academia, and whilst that remains true we will all lose out.

How can we really get more women into tech?

This week, Martha Lane Fox, Baroness Lane-Fox of Soho, CBE gave the annual Richard Dimbleby Lecture to an audience of the great and the good at the Science Museum. If you haven’t already watched it, then it’s available on the BBC iPlayer, or you can read a transcript on Lane Fox’s website.

Titled Dot Everyone – making Britain brilliant at the Internet, Lane Fox’s lecture contains many truths that the UK as a nation, the British Government and business leaders need to hear — and take to heart — about the state of technology in the UK. She is absolutely right that our infrastructure needs urgent upgrading, especially rural broadband which across much of the country is either woefully slow or absent. She is right that we need to “improve our understanding of the internet at all levels of our society”, to “get more women involved in technology”, and that we need to “tackle the genuinely new and thorny ethical and moral issues the internet has created”. I could not agree with her more on all three points.

Lane Fox pays particular attention to the issue of women in tech, saying:

The best predictor of an effective team is the presence of women. The kind of collaborative, team-based work that creates great software and great digital services has been proven to be vastly improved by the presence of women. So let’s show what can be done – starting in our schools, continuing all the way to the boardrooms.

Here’s a straightforward, achievable goal – let’s make the UK the best place to be a female technologist in the world. Now.

The Uk will need 1m people to fill the jobs created in the technology sector by 2020. So Let’s create an awesome new cohort of female coders, creators, designers – women to take on any and every digital role.

Why not launch a national challenge to find the best ideas to tackle this problem?

Why not offer every unemployed woman free education and training?

Surely there must be a couple of new Ada Lovelaces lurking in this land?

There are exciting projects happening in the UK such as Techmums, Stemettes and Codebar but there need to be more of them, with bigger impact, so we foster the maximum breadth and depth of digital talent.

Remember the next wave of women can come from all sorts of unlikely places – look at me – An ancient historian!

The answer, Lane Fox suggests, is to create a new institution, which she suggests be called Dot Everyone, which would tackle this problem head on, and “figure out how to put women at the heart of the technology sector.” And this is where I start to feel frustrated. Whilst I can see the potential benefit of a new institution, and particular how it could effect change at a policy level, it feels a bit removed, a bit remote from the work that people are doing right now.

Lane Fox says we need more grassroots projects like the ones she mentions in her talk, and that they need to have a bigger impact. I agree, but there’s only one way to achieve that, and it’s not by creating a new institution, it’s by giving these existing groups money and by funding new groups.

Money is the one thing that never gets discussed in the public conversation about women in tech or STEM. Money gets glossed over, as if grassroots groups magically survive on the smell of a Jane Austen £10 note, or as if all we need are volunteers.

Well, reality doesn’t work like that. In reality, good volunteers are hard to find and even harder to keep. In reality, hiring people achieves more than asking for volunteers, because lots of what needs to happen is either dull but time-sensitive or requires expertise that really ought to be paid for. And in reality, some things need actual cold hard cash, such as paying for food and drink, or train tickets, or hotel rooms, or insurance.

If Lane Fox wants Techmums, Stemettes, Codebar, Ada Lovelace Day, 300Seconds, Girl Geek Dinners, ScienceGrrl, LetToysBeToys, and the dozens and dozens of other groups working in this and adjoining areas to have a bigger impact, then she needs to find us the money to do so. Ultimately, these groups achieve more with less than big government projects, such as the Science, It’s a Girl Thing video, in which the EU spent a boatload of cash on a demeaning and insulting video. What could we, the grassroots, have done with that money?

Grassroots groups are out there, right now, supporting women in tech and in STEM. They’re getting up close and personal with the problems women face and they, more than anyone, know that a variety of tactics are needed to solve those problems. There is no single silver bullet, which is why we need — and why we have — a plurality of voices, a plurality of approaches, each of which tackles a slightly different aspect of the problem in a slightly different way.

If a new official body is needed, it is a funding body, one that brings together the tech millionaires and billionaires, the tech and STEM industry giants, the philanthropists, the British and EU governments to create a pool of money that can be given to grassroots organisations to support their work.

Such a body would need to adhere to a number of tenets in order to have a significant impact:

  1. No bureaucracy. Most grant-giving bodies have horrendous bureaucracy, with Byzantine applications processes that require you to be psychic in order to work out the answers they want. A simple application process is a must, because if we’re spending hours drafting a massive application document for you, we’re not doing the important work of supporting women in STEM.
  2. No strings. Another issues with existing grant-giving bodies is that they want you to service their mission, they aren’t always that interested in supporting your mission. The provisions they impose can make actually taking a grant from them detrimental to grassroots groups, imposing a burden that could ultimately destroy them. So grants would have to have no strings attached in order to have the biggest impact.
  3. Fund core costs. Related to point 2 is the issue that most grant giving bodies will not fund core costs, ie they won’t keep your lights on for you. For most grassroots organisations, core costs are all of their costs, and refusing to pay wages, travel, equipment, and other day-to-day expenses makes actually carrying out the funded project unduly onerous or even impossible.
  4. No reporting. The urge to demand that grant recipients prove the impact that they have had is another way to destroy a grant’s usefulness to a small organisation. If I’m a one or two person organisation and I need to gather a bunch of — usually meaningless — metrics to satisfy your reporting requirements, and then spend time writing that all up, I’m not actually doing my real job. And seriously, what’s the worst that could happen? Realistically, I’m not going to abscond with your money to South America. At the very worst, it’s going to keeping some people in work for a period of time, which even on its own in these straitened times is a good outcome. Best case scenario is that you’re working with me closely enough to see for yourself the impact your money is having.
  5. Access to expertise. Grassroots groups don’t just need money, we need access to reliable expertise, including in business development, marketing, governance, financial, legal, technological and many other areas. When you want to bring in an expert, volunteering won’t cut it, you need to pay for good knowledge. But often, grassroots groups don’t have the budget to hire a freelance, don’t have the need (or the budget) for a full time position, and sometimes don’t have the expertise themselves to know how to recruit the right person. An organisation which brought these professionals together to work with grassroots groups would really accelerate their growth and make them much more effective.
  6. Access to networks. Those of us working at the coal face get to know each other, but it can be hard to get to know people beyond our networks, not least because we’re really, really busy actually doing the work (and sometimes having a job whilst doing the work). It’s very, very difficult for us to form meaningful relationships with those in positions of power and influence. I was recently at an event that was attended mostly be ladies, dames, MBEs, CBEs, admirals, CEOs, chairwomen, MPs, and Pulitzer prizewinners. It was a very interesting event, but I was literally the only grassroots person there. It was great to be given a peek into this world, but ultimately I made but one significant connection. An organisation that can bring together these disparate worlds would be useful for both.

If supporting women in tech, or STEM, is the goal then money is what is needed to make that goal happen. We might be British, and thus feel a bit weird talking about financial things, but we have to. Chucking £50,000 or £25,000 to a couple of dozen grassroots organisations is going to provide a fantastic return on investment, with that money going straight to where it’s needed most. And, given support from a pool of experts and professionals, that return on investment can easily be increased.

So I would like to ask you to join me in calling on Martha Lane Fox, the Dimbleby family, the Government, the global tech giants, philanthropists and grant giving organisations to unite, to create a fund of at least £5 million to be given to organisations, whether they are general STEM orgs like Ada Lovelace Day industry-focused* organisations like the Women’s Engineering Society, according to the above tenets. Whether they are working on tech in particular or STEM in general, whether they focused on increasing the participation of women in STEM or encouraging girls to consider a STEM career, whether they are hyperlocal or global, whether they are formal charities or ad hoc organisations with a charitable purpose, they need financial support to excel and to truly serve and support women in tech and STEM.

Many of the women and men working in this area do so because they are passionate about helping others to excel. Passion drives activism, but passion fuelled by money is what drives real change.

* UPDATE: I originally used the word ‘professional’ to mean groups that focus on a particular profession, but it was pointed out to me that this might be interpreted as meaning ‘groups with salaried staff’, so have changed it to ‘industry-focused’.

Help us develop educational resources for schools

One thing I’ve always wanted to do for Ada Lovelace Day is produce educational resource packs about women in STEM, including ways to encourage girls to engage more with STEM subjects. I’ve had many requests in the past to produce such materials, but we’ve never had the money to do it, until now! Thanks to sponsorship from ARM, we have now kicked off our education project, which we’ve started in earnest over on our new forum.

We will be producing materials to support Year 7 (11-12) pupils in the UK, and will be releasing them under a Creative Commons licence to that they can be localised by volunteers.

The first stage of the project is to talk to teachers, parents, educators, science communicators and STEM experts in order to define the scope of the project, to work out what sort of materials are actually needed and how they support the National Curriculum. In order to do that, I’ve started a number of conversations on the forum, including:

There’s a lot more to discuss than that, obviously, and I’m very keen to hear from different perspectives on all these and related issues.

At the moment, I’m imagining that the resources pack could cover:

  • Information on women in STEM who can act as role models, both individuals and teams
  • Resources for studying STEM subjects, particularly ones suitable for girls or which are gender neutral
  • Information on gender literacy, including marketing and stereotypes
  • Suggestions on how to use after school activities to support girls interested in STEM

But this list is very much open to discussion, as everything is.

What can you do? 

If you’re interested in supporting this project, then please do get involved on the forum. Some of the questions I’d like to discuss include:

  • What sort of materials would be most useful to teachers? Are we talking lesson plans? Profiles of women in STEM? Lists of online STEM resources? All of the above?
  • How can we support the National Curriculum? I don’t want to produce materials that are only useful once a year on Ada Lovelace Day, but something which supports year round teaching.
  • Can we create a set of guidelines for assessing whether an online teaching resource supports girls in STEM? For example, does it challenge or support existing gender stereotypes?

It would be great if teachers and educators would be willing to share examples of great teaching materials that they would like to see more of, for example, lesson plans, activities, and worksheets. It would also be incredibly useful if people could share links to resources that already exist which might be relevant. We have no desire to reinvent the wheel, so want to compile a great list of online resources that support our mission of encouraging girls to consider STEM subjects.

And, as with any such project, there’s bound to be stuff we haven’t thought about that others can point out to us. We’re incredibly interested to hear from you, so please do get involved! And remember to share this blog post widely and encourage friends and colleagues to get involved too.


Annual Campbell Lecture: The Invention of Career

Last week, I visited Southampton University to give WiSET’s Annual Campbell Lecture, alongside Professor Jane Francis, director of the British Antarctic Survey. I was asked to talk about my career, which initially was a bit of an alarming prospect because my career is hardly what one could call a shining example of how to run your professional life. The more I thought about it, though, the more I felt that my story was a very relevant one for today’s students and graduates because it’s one of uncertainty, dead-ends, and making things up as I go along. It’s worked out well in the end, but it’s been a rather circuitous route to get here.

In the talk, I chose to discuss the two ways in which we invent our own careers: by creating polished stories about our careers that gloss over the difficult bits, and by actually inventing new jobs that didn’t exist before. The stories that we surround ourselves with — the ones we hear about others, the ones that we tell others about ourselves, and the ones we tell ourselves about our capabilities — are important because they shape how we think about the world, how we understand our place in it, and how we imagine our future. And the way in which we imagine the future directly shapes our actions in the present, because you cannot plan for a future that you cannot imagine.

And with technology remaking entire industries, destroying some jobs and creating others, the ability to recognise opportunities and create new roles for oneself is a skill too valuable to be left to chance. We need to learn how to take our skills and apply them in inventive ways that allow us to spot and exploit opportunities that didn’t exist before.

The talk is about 45 minutes long, and I hope you enjoy it!

National Women in Engineering Day (NWED)

 Guest post by Amina Khalid, NWED Coordinator


23 June 2015

National Women in Engineering Day (NWED) will take place on the 23rd of June this year and will be celebrated across the UK to help inspire the next generation of female engineers.

Last year, the Women’s Engineering Society (WES) launched NWED to celebrate their 95th anniversary, and as a way of encouraging external organisations and establishments to promote engineering among girls. By uniting thousands of people on NWED, WES aims to bridge the gap between women and engineering, encouraging more girls across the UK to consider engineering as a serious profession.

Over 250 schools and 100 organisations around the UK celebrated NWED last year by hosting their own engineering-related activities and events. The day provides the perfect opportunity to directly dispel gender barriers while promoting diversity and equality in engineering among young people. This is achieved by encouraging as many people, establishments and organisations as possible to host their own engineering-related events and activities in order to reveal the true, exciting and diverse identity of engineering.  After the success of last year’s event, WES are looking to make NWED bigger and better this year and hope to encourage a lot more people and organisations to get involved and help promote engineering to more young women. 

WES’s strong support for women engineers is backed by its rich history dating back to the first war. 95 years ago in post-World War I Britain, a group of female pioneers led by Lady Parsons campaigned against the government to allow women to remain in the workforce and uphold the roles of engineers and technicians that they had once adopted during the war. These women not only challenged the traditional majority view, but they laid the foundations for gender equality and diversity within engineering. They were not content with the government’s decision to pressure women to step down after the war, during which they had played a major role in the running of affairs. This double standard of only allowing women to embrace highly professional job roles during the war prompted the rise and establishment of the Women’s Engineering Society by Lady Parsons.

WES not only campaigned to allow women to keep their jobs as engineers, but also became a driving force in encouraging and supporting women in this industry. Fast forward to the 21st century and we would expect engineering to be the epitome of gender diversity and equality in the UK after the endless struggles and campaigns of early female engineers. Unfortunately, this is not the case, and WES continues to support and encourage more girls and women into engineering.

Although women are not faced with the same legal pressures preventing them from becoming engineers, the shortage of female engineers suggests that alternative pressures, such as stereotyping and societal expectations, mean that engineering is still perceived as a male career. Britain may have been the birth ground of female engineering pioneers and activists, but current statistics shockingly reveal that the UK has the lowest percentage of female engineers in Europe at just 7 percent.

Not only is engineering typically connected to a specific gender, but young people commonly associate engineering with construction sites and hard hats. Although construction-based engineering, aka civil engineering, is respectable in its own right, engineering as a whole should not be defined by this single discipline. Engineering is a vast profession that contains countless exciting and interesting opportunities that many young people, especially girls, are oblivious to. So what can be done to encourage more girls to consider engineering as a serious career?

Follow in the footsteps of early WES pioneers and get involved in raising the profile of women engineers this year. It’s simple but extremely rewarding to get involved in NWED and dispel the negative stereotypes associated with engineering. Not only will you be standing in solidarity with thousands across the country, but you will change British history by contributing to the increase in female engineers! To show your support for NWED, all you need to do is host an engineering-related event or activity and publicise it, using social media (using the #NWED hashtag) and mainstream media. The event could be a short careers workshop about the engineering profession or a talk inviting a local female engineer to speak to young people about rewarding opportunities within engineering. The main thing to remember is that you want the public to be aware that engineering is a diverse and exciting profession suitable for everyone!

Get Involved in NWED

Get involved in NWED 2015

Don’t forget to let us know what you plan to do for NWED 2015 by filling in our Event Notification Form.

For more information on how to get involved for NWED 2015, visit our website and request a free resource pack.