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  • Writer's pictureSciEnvy

Women in Science | Seth Thomas, Kerry Hayes & Carole Thomas

Gender inequality is a very real issue. Within science, this issue has become amplified to truly remarkable levels. As an early career researcher, it was not until recently that I really became aware of the gender inequality issue within the research community. During my time as a high school, sixth form and even through my time as an undergraduate student, the issue was somewhat swept under the rug. Perhaps it’s the influence of my primary supervisor, who is the chair of UEA’s ResNet Programme, that’s caused me to become increasingly aware of these issues.

For example, I was not aware that female scientists earn £5000 less on average than their male counterparts, with the difference capable of reaching a gulf of £21000, which let’s face it, is atrocious. On top of the wage gap, sexism still runs riot in the work place, take the recent words of Nobel Prize winner Tim Hunt:

“Three things happen when they [women] are in the lab, you fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, and when you criticise them they cry.” - Tim Hunt, 2015

Already the reasons for a gender imbalance at the top of the scientific field were becoming clearer. Rather than follow the trend that I have witnessed to date, and look for the nearest roomy-looking rug to sweep these comments under, I’ve decided to take a different approach.

It’s fair to say that society is experiencing a wave of feminism. This wave is something I’m all for being carried along with. However, this wave is like the two sides of a coin. On one side, is applaudable feminism, and on the reverse, is ‘man hating’. A quick search of hashtags such as #internalmisogyny on twitter will shed some light on what I mean. The following is aimed to land firmly in the positive feminism sector…

During this short article, I’ve collated the views of two women in science at opposing ends of the career ladder, to give their opinions on the women in science conundrum, and the agendas in place aiming to alleviate gender inequality in science today. The first of these women, is Kerry Hayes - currently working as a Marine Analyst for Regen SouthWest. The second, is Dr. Carole Thomas - Head of the Directorate at the John Innes Centre.

Seth Thomas, Editor.

"Neither the length of my hair, colour of my nails, interest in my appearance or the height of my heels impact upon my ability to articulate my point, to present at a conference or to complete work as an analyst”

Women in Energy At 24 years old, armed with both undergraduate and postgraduate degrees, I’ve begun climbing the career ladder in the renewable energy sector. Currently, I’m an analyst working for a non-profit centre of expertise in renewable energy. More specifically, I work in the marine energy team, focusing on increasing the presence of the marine renewable sector to a point where technology can efficiently generate energy from waves and tides. The renewables sector will always be important, and as such this emerging industry is incredibly exciting to be a part of – and perhaps more importantly, it’s an industry I love to be a part of. My team at work consists of two men and myself. I consider myself lucky, the men I work for and with push me to achieve more, suggesting opportunities for me to take, as well as providing support and encouragement. The organization is comprised of just over 50% women, with a multi-gender board of senior executives, which is remarkably unusual in the energy sector. In 2010 there was only one female chief executive in the UK energy sector and things aren’t much better now – last year 96% of senior executives in energy companies were men. This is why initiatives such as POWERful Women and EWiRE, are important – increasing the profile, and hopefully amount, of women in the sector. It doesn’t need saying that if there are more men than women in the sector, a lot of the events, conferences and meetings I attend are male dominated and I am heavily outnumbered. This leads to me to my first point – my clothes. My Handbag I want to talk about shoes and dresses and my handbag. Confused? Then hopefully this means you aren’t guilty of judging a woman in science or business by the way she dresses. I love the colour pink, nice dresses and stiletto heels. I have long hair which I like to wear down and I love coordinating my shoes, phone and handbag, which is easy because they are mostly always pink (stay with me, I am getting to the point). Neither the length of my hair, colour of my nails, interest in my appearance or the height of my heels impact upon my ability to articulate my point, to present at a conference or to complete work as an analyst - but you would be amazed at the amount of times people write me off before speaking to me based on my appearance (note I said people – this isn’t just men - women are guilty of doing this, too). These people don’t ignore me, but at events they assume that I must be an event’s organizer and ask for directions to the toilets or to the cloakroom. In meetings, they assume I am part of the admin team and that I am there to take minutes or get coffee, and not to input directly to the conversation. All this despite frequently doing more of the work we are reporting on than my colleagues. The point is they have decided that because I like to make an effort with my clothes that I can’t be an analyst or a serious business woman. I also have female colleagues who don’t like wearing high heels and they like to wear flat shoes and smart trousers. These women are also not safe from preconceived ideas and judgements, this time though, instead of being considered vain and preoccupied with nice things, they are accused of “power dressing” or “acting like they are trying to be a woman in a man’s world”. My male peers do not come up against such scrutiny and do not have to justify their wardrobe choice when they turn up to an event. No one ever assumes my male colleague is there to take minutes or to get coffee! In my mind this is a key issue in overcoming sexism in science, and business too. Until we stop holding women to account for their appearance and start taking their experience and expertise into consideration, we will not overcome the issue of sexism in science or the workplace. We also won’t attract more young girls into science and engineering, which is desperately needed. We need to deal with the unconscious bias of many who discourage girls from careers in science and engineering. Did you know, 93% of parents said they would not support their daughter in pursuing an engineering career and only 6% of the engineering workforce is female. This is all in a time when the UK needs over one million new engineers to meet future challenges. Science is Boring and Geeky I recently took part in a National Women in Engineering Day at Truro High School for Girls. The day was fantastic, with an agenda packed full of incredible women, running interactive sessions for the girls on a whole spectrum of engineering and science based topics, including welding with chocolate, building a tidal barrage and making solar panels from fruit. I ran a session demonstrating an oscillating water column wave energy device with an empty water bottle and tissue paper (imagination required, but it really did work!), before delivering the closing speech for the day. I walked around the day watching all of the activities going on and was reminded why I loved science as a child, and why I chose to base my studies and career around it. It is exciting and it is everything! So you can imagine that I was shocked when I quizzed a few of the girls on their interest in science and got told that “science is boring”, and “what’s the point?”. I decided to turn these points on their head and rushed off to prepare an extra slide for my closing speech. Art isn’t my strong point, so I stood on stage rather embarrassed by my terrible PowerPoint slide which consisted of a scene with the ocean, filled with divers, cables, oil rigs, wind turbines, tidal turbines, rocks and the sky filled with helicopters. I reminded the girls of the comments about science being boring and having no point, and then asked the girls to talk amongst themselves and identify how many jobs they could identify. I paced up and down the stage for a moment listening to the excitable chat that was going on in front of me. My plan had worked! When I called for silence and asked for answers, I had 120 hands in the air, ready to albeit unwittingly, engage in science. The girls came up with over 40 different jobs, from all areas of science and engineering! When I was finally able to interrupt their enthusiasm I asked them who still thought science was boring and had no point. I am pleased to say there was not a single hand in the air and no one said a word. That, for me, sums it all up. We all have a responsibility, as women in science, to excite these young people about the possibilities that come with science. Kerry Hayes, Regen SW.

”If there was one piece of advice I would give to those of you starting out on that exciting scientific journey it would be to make the most of every opportunity that comes along – step out of your comfort zone. You must take control of your own destiny.”

The Leaky Pipeline If there was one review that those embarking on a scientific career should read to provide them insight into the reality of a career within academia it would be the Royal Society report ‘The Scientific Century: securing our future prosperity’. This report highlights the fact that although a PhD can be a stepping stone to a scientific career the majority of people undertaking a PhD go on to have successful and fulfilling careers outside scientific research, with only a small proportion ending up either as University Academics or Professors. It is therefore essential, given the position outlined by the Royal Society, that individuals make the most of training opportunities and take responsibility for their own career development. This is backed up by a recent pilot undertaken by the European Science Federation. Which recommends that more should be done to develop greater awareness of, and knowledge about, relevant careers outside of academia in consultancy, industry, government and elsewhere. This message on top of the reality that in addition the small proportion of early career scientists that make that successful transition to Senior Academic positions, the number of women in these positions is alarmingly low. The statistics taken from the 2014 Equality in Higher Education Statistical Reports on Students and Staff demonstrates clearly the ‘leaky pipeline’ – the continuous loss of women at consecutive career stages within academia.

This diagram shows how despite the fact that there are slightly more women undergraduates and postgraduates than men, there is a tendency for the academics grades; particularly the Professorial grades to be male dominated. This is true regardless of which STEMM discipline you look at. There are some STEMM disciplines like engineering and physics that are dominated by men further down the pipeline. The Need for a Level Playing Field in Science This loss of women from the system and the resulting impact on gender balance provides the basis for the ‘women in science’ agenda. The ECU Athena SWAN Charter celebrates its 10th anniversary this year. This Charter is focused on gender equality, representation, progression and success for all. It is important that people should be judged on their performance and should compete on a level playing field; gender should play no role in this. Why is it that we are loosing women from the academic career pipeline? Athena SWAN initiative has had a huge impact on University and Research Institute practices. These organisations are very competitive and are working their way through the levels of Athena SWAN awards – Bronze (action plan in place to address issues), Silver (initiatives in place and having an impact) and Gold (spreading good practice). I strongly encourage you to consider the Athena SWAN status of an Institution that you are considering for your next career move.

"It has been proven that good practice benefits all, whereas bad practice affects women more"

The Athena SWAN Charter is designed to trigger a comprehensive review of current practice and to identify areas for improvement in the ways in which gender issues are treated. It serves as a focal point to accelerate commitment to gender equality resulting in the implementation of new initiatives, aimed ostensibly at women, but which benefit all staff. It has been proven that good practice benefits everybody, men and women, whereas bad practice affects women more. In the case of the John Innes Centre, the Research Institute that I work for, these initiatives include a family support fund that provides additional financial help, when needed, towards caring costs incurred while attending training courses, workshops and conferences, an initiative that enables scientists on a tenure track position - essentially a five year probation period - under compelling personal circumstances (e.g. childbirth / adoption, illness and responsibility for elderly parents), to ‘extend the clock’ by up to a year. Coupled with extra support for scientists on maternity leave, it is hoped that this will encourage more female scientists to apply for senior research roles. Initiatives like these ensure personal circumstances do not disadvantage individuals. Step Out of Your Comfort Zone I knew early on in my first postdoctoral position that I was not cut out to be a Research Leader, or a Lecturer but was passionate about having a career in science. I completed my PhD and my first Postdoctoral position at the John Innes Centre in Norwich. I then had the opportunity to move into more of a support role – looking after my Research Leader’s group, supervising PhD students, acting as the troubler shooter for experiments, taking on those ‘too difficult to do‘ projects and providing the foundation data for new grant proposals, all this while bringing up three children. Having children and a successful career in science is possible. Children focus your mind and teach you how to prioritise and manage your time more effectively, skills that have come in extremely useful in my current role. It is OK to be a Mother and work full time. There is no need to feel torn between work and children. My children are well-rounded independent people and if anything I would say they have benefitted from the social skills they learnt from mixing with others at a very early age. I wasted a lot of energy worrying about the impact me working would have on them. Once my family got to an age where they were no longer dependent on me I realised that I needed something more challenging, it was time for me to stretch myself. It was at this time that I had the opportunity to consider a completely different role within the Institute. The institute and the workload of the Director had grown enormously over the years and there was a need for someone with a scientific background to help keep things moving, take on Institute projects, write papers, attend meetings and all those other good things that keeps an Institute functioning. This was a high-level scientific administrative support role aligned to the Director. It took me a while to pluck up the courage to make this move as I had looked at the job description and couldn’t see how I would fill all the criteria. My experience was all around working as a researcher in the lab, this new role would take me into the realms of Institute and funding politics. Looking back it was a great career move, I have been promoted to a level that I would never have achieved if I’d stayed as a research assistant or a postdoc, and I have had the opportunity to grow the role, for instance like taking on the Athena SWAN project. I lead on the Women in Science agenda at JIC. JIC is very supportive of parents, there are opportunities for flexible working, consideration to career breaks are given when reviewing promotions, parental leave, a breast-feeding room and we are beginning to put things in motion to try and encourage a nursery provider to locate to the Norwich Research Park. If there was one piece of advice I would give to those of you starting out on that exciting scientific journey it would be to make the most of every opportunity that comes along – step out of your comfort zone. You must take control of your own destiny. Women of the Future To address this gender balance in science we need to target schoolgirls and make them realise that a science career is for them and that there are amazing things that they can do with a science education. To this aim we organised a Women of the Future conference that brought together over 240 14-15 year old girls from 20 state schools across Norfolk and Suffolk, many with catchments in areas of high social deprivation and in remote rural or coastal locations, with female professionals in STEMM careers to share knowledge and experiences. The conference illustrated the diversity of career options available to those with science qualifications and aimed to inspire the next generation of female STEMM professionals. The feedback from the conference has been very positive. The event attracted funding from a variety of sources including Intel, who also provided an all-female film crew that captured the views of a particular group of girls from Flegg High School before, during and after the event. We also had help from the local University, UEA and ResNet, a support group on the Norwich Research Park. Intel has released a video on the Intel YouTube channel, which is definitely worth a look. The video will be used to influence governments around the world to encourage them to commit more money and resources into promoting gender equality in STEMM. To further increase the impact of the Women of the Future event we invited all the participating schools to take part in a new pilot project, the Youth STEMM Award, which was inspired by the popular Duke of Edinburgh award, but will be focused on STEMM. Carole Thomas, JIC Directorate Carole has recently written a longer article for online magazine Womanthology. You can read the full article here Regardless of this article, gender inequality needs to be addressed nationally, not just within science. There are many feminist programmes in place outside of science, take Emma Watson’s He For She campaign, and the particular focus that Sport England and their partner organisations are giving to female sports people with This Girl Can. In my opinion, the pathway to progress in gender equality needs to come from both genders - #SheForHe should attract as much focus and positive energy as #HeForShe. If this article has helped to contribute any progress to this, if only on the minutest of scales, then it has been well worth collating. Seth Thomas, Editor


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