Women in STEM – Recognising that we have a problem

Today I’m doing yet another interview about Girls in STEM. I’m always glad to have my voice heard – as a woman in STEM you sometimes find you get shouted down, or more frequently simply not invited to the table at all.
I’m going to be answering the usual questions, so I thought I might prepare by answering them here.

What are your experiences as a woman in STEM?
I’ve been lucky, because I’ve been in a position to make the decision not to work with anyone who doesn’t take me seriously because I’m female, and that has been incredibly liberating. I don’t think you get that option in academia. Which means you have to accept that you’re going to have to work a lot harder than your average man, to receive a fraction of the recognition.

But it’s really important to have women active in STEM. As a result of my work I’ve seen the number of girls taking my subject skyrocket. I’ve had girls tell me I am their role model and their hero. I’ve seen girls go into Computing degrees and careers who would never even have considered it if it wasn’t for me.
I’ve had fantastic experiences like the Superstars of STEM program, and I’ve met amazing women who have taught me incredible lessons in feminism, resilience, and workplace politics.

I love working in STEM, and I want everyone to have the chance to find out whether it is something they would love, too. At the moment we are pushing too many people away – not just women – without even realising it.

What challenges or bias have you observed?
A lot of my challenges have been around working part time, which is not exclusively a female issue, but it is predominantly women who are part time. Policies are nearly always created with only full timers in mind. So I’ve had to fight to have my teaching load proportionate to my working hours. To have grants allocated to Early Career Researchers take into account career breaks and part time status, instead of simply considering number-of-years-since PhD completion. To get the equivalent meeting allowance as full timers. To get the equivalent Professional Development allowance. It’s not hard to take part time and career breaks into account, and to make all policies fair to part timers – it’s usually very simple maths – but it seems to be very difficult to remember to do so. So you have to fight just to get fair treatment. And that’s exhausting.

When it comes to promotion, it’s really hard to separate gender from personality and qualifications, but that’s also a trap, because it’s easy for people to tell you you didn’t get a particular job or leadership position for all kinds of valid reasons. And the curse of imposter syndrome makes this easy to believe. But when you see a person with a fraction of your experience and expertise handed a permanent role that you had to jump through crazy hoops just to get as an acting position (and which was then advertised out from underneath you), it’s difficult to see that as anything other than gender based. I’ve been not invited to meetings where I was the only one actually qualified to comment on the subject matter. I’ve been talked down to, ignored, and bullied.

One of the problems is that many men don’t accept that there is any gender bias in STEM. And when those men are in positions of power, it makes it really difficult to tackle the problem. We have seen robust, repeatable studies showing that the same CV is ranked differently when it has a male name versus female, yet perfectly rational, logical men will tell you that “of course that doesn’t happen here. Here’s it’s all on merit.” while sitting in a board room predominantly white, male, and over 50 (pale, male, and stale).

Some of the challenges are really subtle. I recently submitted a proposal to a conference for a Birds of a Feather (BoF) Session, and one of the key selection criteria for BoFs was how well known the people on the submission were. This is classic gatekeeping. If you’re not already well known, it’s hard to get a proposal accepted, which means proposals get accepted from the usual crowd, which, oh dear, turns out to be largely white, male, and over 50. When I did some stats on the BoF sessions from the previous year it turns out that BoF sessions were run by 84% men. 78% of sessions had no women at all. There were 48 sessions run by only men, compared with 3 sessions run by only women, out of a total of 78 sessions.

How can we fix it?
First and foremost, I think we need to publish our selection criteria, and our statistics. Right through from High School. We need to look at the percentage of girls in STEM at school, in undergrad, postgrad, academic positions, speaking at conferences, and in leadership, at every single educational and research institution. How many girls do we have coming in? How do we treat them? When do they leave? We need to make it mandatory to publicly report these statistics. Because then the institutions are doing it right serve as a counter example, and the organisations that need work have incentive to change. You can’t say “girls just don’t want to do STEM” or “women just don’t make good leaders” when there are thriving, successful organisations showing the opposite.

Every institution I know of that is failing to act says “We select on merit.” So, ok, prove it. Publish your selection criteria. Make your selection process open and transparent. Publish your procedures and policies, and LISTEN when people then show you all of the ways in which you are discriminating against various groups.

Don’t wait for women, part timers, people of colour, carers, or anyone else to fight not to be discriminated against. GO LOOKING for all of the ways in which you currently discriminate. Ask people. Critically evaluate your policies, and make them open to critical evaluation from others. Actively seek out the things that are inadvertently gatekeeping and ensuring a lack of diversity in your organisation, department, or event.

Ultimately we all need to recognise and challenge our biases in order to fix them, and it takes transparency and accountability to do that.