Changing the game for diversity in STEM

by Dr Sarah Morgan on 9 October 2018


‘Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has’ Margaret Hamilton.

Why has the percentage of undergraduate physics students who are women been stuck at 20% for over 20 years? How can we better support the 30% of gender non-conforming people in STEM who report feeling uncomfortable in their workplace? When will black female professors at scientific conferences no longer be mistaken for catering staff? On 21st and 22nd September, I co-organised STEM Gamechangers, which brought together 50 participants from across the UK to discuss what it will take to create a paradigm shift towards diversity in STEM. We were hosted by the Alan Turing Institute in London, which was a fantastic, historically pertinent home for the event. The other organisers were Dr Jessica Wade, Dr Hannah Williams, Dr Kirstie Whitaker, Dev Devjoy and Jessie Wand and the event was sponsored by the Alan Turing Institute, HSBC, the Institute of Physics, the Royal Society of Chemistry and SPIE. 

The event kicked off with some inspirational keynote talks, starting with Tabitha Goldstaub who discussed the dangers associated with artificial intelligence learning our own societal biases. Dr Emma Chapman followed with the story of her fight to tackle sexual misconduct in HE, before Dr Ozak Esu shared her experiences of 9 years’ worth of work as a role model for women and ethnic minorities in engineering. On Saturday, Dr Alfredo Carpineti discussed the challenges faced by LGBT+ people in STEM, with a timely reminder that while ‘some science happens in a physical vacuum, no science happens in a historical vacuum’.

For the rest of the two days the participants worked in groups on projects to make STEM more diverse, before pitching their projects to potential investors to win £3000 of funding. The projects broadly fell into two categories: those trying to increase the diversity of people entering STEM professions, and those trying to improve the workplace for those already in STEM. For example, one group worked on a school-based intervention for children and their parents and carers to grow their STEM aspirations, whilst another proposed a legal toolkit to help LGBT people move safely around the world when carrying out research. The standard of the projects was exceptionally high and several projects are already being developed further.

For me, three key messages stood out from STEM Gamechangers. Firstly, a recurring theme was the sheer amount of work and energy that it takes to run diversity initiatives in STEM. Often this workload falls on the same group of people, who normally receive little recognition or support for their efforts and many of the STEM Gamechangers participants recounted feeling overworked or even burnt out. Does running diversity in STEM projects risk distracting women and minority groups in STEM from other work which is more likely to further their careers? How can we get everyone involved in making STEM workplaces more diverse? There are no easy answers. One of the teams worked on how to better evaluate the impact from diversity initiatives and share best practice to make sure that we have maximum impact without burning out. On a related topic, another team proposed to build a kinder STEM by sharing experiences and tips for what can make life in STEM easier, via a website aptly named ‘Scientists are humans’ (https://scientistsarehumans.com/).

The event also underlined the importance of bringing together people from different underrepresented groups in STEM. There are some problems which specifically affect e.g. LGBT people in STEM rather than women (and vice versa), but most of the issues have substantial overlaps and it was brilliant to learn from people with a wide range of backgrounds and experiences. Ultimately, we all have multiple identities which intersect to make us who we are, and this intersectionality plays a key role in the biases different people experience when working in STEM. For example, people who diverge from the stereotypical image of a white, straight, able-bodied male scientist in more than one way can be at a particular disadvantage. As well as providing a better platform to identify and discuss these issues, talking broadly about diversity in STEM also shifts the narrative from focusing on one group (e.g. women or ethnic minorities) to building an environment which is inclusive for everyone. Hopefully that helps to create shared ownership of the issues and makes it harder to trivialise them as e.g. ‘women’s problems’.

But perhaps the most important part of STEM Gamechangers for me was the incredible energy and sense of community which developed over the two days. People came from across the UK, from Aberystwyth to Exeter and Edinburgh, as well as from different disciplines and backgrounds- from industry to policy making, academia and academic publishing. Almost all the participants were already heavily involved in diversity initiatives in their own organisations and it was a real privilege to spend time with people who care so deeply about diversity in STEM. By linking our initiatives and experiences up and working together, we really can be STEM Gamechangers.

 

More information about STEM Gamechangers can be found on our website and on Twitter, as well as a video and a podcast from the event.

Dr Sarah Morgan is a Henslow Research Fellow at Lucy Cavendish College and a Research Associate at the Cambridge Brain Mapping Unit.

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