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WISE inspire - an insight into the world of women in STEM

A report on the WISE Inspire event, featuring interviews with Sarah Cosgriff and Dr Maria Velissariou

By Bethan Soanes

On 27 February, in the lead up to International Woman’s Day, the Women in Science and Engineering (WISE) Society had the privilege to invite four speakers to talk at our biannual ‘WISE Inspire’ event. The purpose of this event is to allow the women making differences in the world of STEM to lead the discussion on improving diversity, opportunities and futures for women in science and technology going forward.

The event started off with a talk from Sarah Cosgriff, a STEM consultant and Gender Balance Officer for the Institute of Physics. With a background in Cell migration research, Sarah is a co-founder of BrumSciComm, a collaborative platform for science communicators, and has given a TED talk in 2016 on why failure isn’t failure.

Her talk highlighted the barriers girls face in their early and late education. She highlighted the difference in experience, not just between girls and boys, but also students from different racial and economic backgrounds. She brought to our attention research into encouraging girls to become more active in lessons, and celebrated the place outreach has in the fight for gender equality in STEM.

Our second speaker, Dr Maria Velissariou, is an alumna of the University (she studied her biochemical engineering PhD here, graduating in 1992) and is the Chief Science and Technology Officer at the Institute of Food Technologists. She is an influential figure in the Chicago science community, with a background in science communication and mentoring with STEMconnector®, which promotes STEM education and careers among girls and women.

Her talk, not only deeply inspiring with regards to her incredible career, highlighted the importance of mentorship between women in science; a message that is profound and memorable. Our evening also gave a student the opportunity to find a mentor in Maria. We at WISE are proud that our event has allowed Maria to share her wisdom not just with the audience at the event, but form an important relationship with a future woman of science.

Our final two speakers shared their personal experiences in their respective fields, ending the evening with hope for positive change.

Jes Bartlett, a PhD student here at the University of Birmingham and member of the University’s Equality and Diversity Committee, spoke of her academic career so far, examining the abilities of invasive insects to affect fragile Antarctic ecosystems. She shared her unconventional route into science, starting her undergraduate science degree in her mid-20’s with the desire to work in Antarctica, and reaching her goal nearly a decade later. Promisingly, she told us of her many female colleagues in the field, a change from the stereotypical “Old Man’s Club” often associated with polar field work, and exemplified the positive change in gender equality in STEM.

Our final speaker was Deborah Harris. Another UoB alumina from the School of Mechanical Engineering, she is currently a materials application engineer at Rolls-Royce. Deborah explained how, despite there still being more men than women in her workplace, that this difference was lessening with time. She shared with us how welcoming and supportive the industry has been for her and her colleagues, offering a hopeful outlook for equality in engineering going forward.

After the event, we got the opportunity to interview Sarah and Maria:

As a science communicator, how do you approach inspiring girls and women to pursue science?

S: In my work (at the Institute of Physics), I look at what there are within the school environment which may discourage girls from taking A Level Physics. For example, one thing we have seen consistently is that boys are more likely to put their hands up and call out answers during a school lesson than girls (in a single sex schools, more confident boys/girls do this). If we rely on this approach to engage with them, you don’t have the same level of engagement with girls. Another thing we have observed is that with science practicals, boys are more likely to do the hands on work and girls are more likely to do the written work – which means both miss out on an important skill. One way of getting around this is giving the students role cards at random so that they develop skills in multiple areas. I try to apply similar principles within my science communication practice.

The thing is we often assume that we need to attract girls and women to science, when they may actually like science already! What the ASPIRES longitudinal survey with 10-14 year olds showed is that a lot of young people do enjoy science and understand the importance, but much less wish to pursue it as a career, partly because of the stereotypical image of a scientist.

I have seen plenty of examples of where science is made to be ‘girly’ in order to attract girls and women. Making science relatable is a good thing to do but making it stereotypically feminine shouldn’t be the blanket approach. The best thing to do when interacting with girls and women (and anyone in general) is to have a two-way engagement – ask them what they’re interested in and curious about rather than assuming.

Your work in outreach is incredibly important for righting the imbalance of gender in STEM right now. Are you hopeful for the future of girls in science?

S: As much as I think working with schools is really important (especially for encouraging those who may not have considered STEM careers for whatever reason), what should also be included in this conversation is the journey after school – so thinking of things like further and higher education and the workplace. Our efforts with engaging girls and other underrepresented demographics in STEM will be wasted if employers and universities don’t make them feel included. Saying that, I know of some employers who are taking positive steps towards improving equality, inclusion and diversity within their organisation and that’s really positive to hear.

On the schools front, I am seeing more interest in improving gender equality (and equality in general) in schools so I am hopeful things are getting better from that perspective. The IOP is one of four organisations who have recently founded Gender Action, an awards programme aimed to support early years, primary and secondary education with tackling gender bias and stereotypes. I recently went to the launch event and I could see there is definitely a growing appetite for this type of initiative. I think what’s really important is that it shouldn’t just be about girls and science – it should be about equal opportunity and a wide range of choice for every child.

What are your favourite memories of your time at the University?

M: There are so many... tea breaks were always welcome times to catch up and ideate, having the most amazing equipment creations by the famous glass blower at Chemical Engineering (a true artist) to idle talk in the University grounds on sunny days. But the fondest memory of all is meeting my husband there.

How do you feel being a woman influenced your experience of working in STEM?

M: It has been a journey of discovery and change, from being a minority in class or the work place looking for the opportunity to make a mark to a much better participation of women. Those formative years at school and work sharpen your intuition and make you more determined to succeed. It was not always plain sailing but when you love what you do, surround yourself with great mentors, women and men, and have a higher purpose you find a way forward.

So far in your career, have you noticed any changes to how women are treated in STEM, and what do you think the future holds?

M: The changes are generational and in many ways profound. We see so many more women enrol in STEM degrees, a lot more claim their rightful place in working life with confidence and in increasing positions of leadership. Academic institutions, employers and government recognize the importance of women's participation in STEM as a source of economic and social enrichment. However we still have work to do to achieve pay parity, openly deal with implicit bias, reduce attrition, especially in the early career years, and ensure that women of all socioeconomic and ethnic backgrounds achieve their full potential. I see a bright future for women in STEM, even in fields that traditionally have lagged behind, with new paradigms being generated and equity gaps closing. However, we should not take things for granted and our work is not done yet. Girls and young women still need the institutional and personal support to pursue STEM choices on an equal footing as men.

What advice do you give to young girls wanting to work in STEM?

M: I would encourage them to pursue their dreams without fear or hesitation, to listen to their instincts and allow themselves the space to grow, learn and improve; not to settle for second best.

After another successful WISE Inspire event, the excitement within our fellow students was palpable, but the journey of encouraging young and diverse people into entering STEM is far from over! Along with Inspire, WISE will continue to encourage young people by holding careers events, socials, and an award-winning outreach scheme, where we volunteer in local schools running an after-school club to encourage young girls to pursue science.

From Issue 18

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