This month we hosted a book club discussing the Sunday Times best seller, `Why I’m no longer talking to white people about race’ by Reni Eddo-Lodge. This book, first published in 2017, brings a fresh, British perspective to the conversation around anti-racism which was sparked globally in the summer of 2020. We would highly recommend reading this book for those not able to attend the call. An interesting discussion was had around a number of the different themes in the book, with the conversation focused on some questions proposed in a blog post by Sally Flint found here. Particularly interesting was the chapter on intersectionality and feminism, and the subsequent discussion on how we as Women in Climate can support black people and other minorities in the sciences. A number of participants also suggested implicit association tests, to help further understand our own biases. We hope that we will be able to continue this conversation within the network going forwards and a number of additional book and films were suggested by the participants as listed below.
Further Reading and Watching (Recommended by session participants)
White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo
Brit(ish) by Afua Hirsch
How to argue with a Racist by Adam Rutherford
13th on Netflix
Small Axe BBC one
Superior by Angela Saini (also her book Inferior for the science behind sexism)
The good immigrant by Nikesh Shukla
What white people can do next by Emma Dabiri
So you want to talk about race by Ijeoma Oluo (Also her book Mediocre)
Ten simple rules for building an antiracist lab by V Bala Chaudhary
Some fiction suggestions…
Homegoing by Yaa Gyuasi
Small island by Andrea Levy
This week we were pleased to be joined by Ana Jaramillo and Mariana Macedo to discuss this topic of gender differences in academia. Both are PhD candidates at the University of Exeter in Computer Sciences.
First we heard from Mariana about `Differences in the spatial landscape of urban mobility: gender and socio-economic perspectives’. This study is based on the definition of human mobility as the displacement between locations in urban areas e.g: how far someone travels for work. This has historically been very different with women either staying at home or working closer to home for reasons such as childcare and safety. This work only considers the social constructs affecting urban mobility, and not possible biological reasons. The aim of the work is to address a gap in the current literature and shows that urban mobility can be impacted by a variety of factors including cultural constructs, modes of transport, city development and spatial opportunities.
The work done by Mariana considers mobility in three different locations (Medellin, Bogotá and São Paulo), and quantifies the mobility diversity as a quantity H. It is no surprise that men consistently had a higher level of mobility in these regions. Interestingly, the upper class had lower urban mobility and a larger gender difference compared to middle class where the gender gap was smaller. Overall, socio-economic factors gives a higher diversity in mobility then gender difference, but gender difference can become ten times higher when we also consider socio economic factors.
We then heard from Ana on the topic of `Gender difference in productivity and collaboration networks of top-rated academics’. It is well known that women are underrepresented in academia, particularly in STEM subjects. The good news is that representation is growing, but very slowly. From this work, it is hoped that it may be possible to diagnose the problem of this slow growth. Ana’s work focuses on the productivity and collaborations of the top 10% most productive computer scientists as quantified by their number of publications.
From the number of publications over a person’s career, it is interesting that women are seen to have much shorter careers at 35 years vs 47 years for men on average. Once productivity is understood, collaboration and networks can be studied by looking at co-authorship on papers. It was interesting to hear that women work with more women than men do, while men work with men more than they do with women. Women also have networks which are more clustered meaning that they tend to work more in research groups. The conclusion of this is that men work with women less than expected. The good news is that this is slowly changing as representation improves and working patterns become more collaborative.
There are two main barriers for scientists communicating their work to the public:
the prestige and elevation of the positions we hold at Universities or the Met Office can be intimidating to the general public (although our knowledge is respected), and
the language we use is often filled with jargon and expert knowledge.
Rather than trying to tell the general public about your job and specific area of science, your role in general climate communication using comedy is to be an accessible messenger of general climate information. In doing this it is key to:
show you’re human,
talk about yourself even to the point of self-deprecation (can be very amusing)
not talk down to your audience, and
bring people into everything (this makes it relatable).
Doing these things will help your audience engage in what you’re talking about. Everyone likes to be entertained and learn something. You make it easier for your audience to learn when they are relaxed and enjoying themselves. The goal is to engage people and make a connection with you as a person early.
For a topic such as climate change, people have strong opinions. If they deny the science, it is more realistic to not try to convince them to change their minds then and there, but it is more effective to think of your job as trying to soften their view. You probably won’t change their mind that day, but if you’re lucky you might start to break down some misinformation they regard as factual.
When talking to the general public, it is important to talk about shared experiences and invite people to take individual action. Most of your audience likely cares about the climate, but does not know much about it, and does not know how they can make a difference. Examples of individual action include changing their energy provider to a green energy company, eating less meat, or walking more rather than driving. Small actions do help motivate people to in time make larger changes such as putting solar panels on roofs, getting smaller cars or not flying.
Tips for speaking about climate change:
Tell jokes and have fun but don’t make fun of climate change.
Dark humour can be fun when the right person uses it, it can be very effective. But Climate change is already a dark topic, so be cautious or even avoid dark humour about it unless it is a style to which you are naturally experienced using for comedy.
Health and food security are good ways of talking to people about climate change. It is easy to understand and the impacts are personal rather than abstract.
Write the talk first, then try to make it funny. It is too hard to think of jokes first and then arrange the talk around it.
Most of the jokes you come up with you won’t use (80-90% you won’t use). But you need to work on it to find the right ones that do work. Almost all of Matt’s jokes are planned, only very infrequently are the spontaneous.
Newspapers are a great place to find material to talk about. There are very few people who can give a general science talk on their area of research. You need to know a little bit about a lot of things. Newspapers have already removed a lot of the technical jargon so it is a good entry point (do still read the papers though as the media do sometimes misrepresent scientific findings, and consider how reliable the science journalism of the paper that you are reading is. Carbon Brief is an excellent place to start for accurate climate journalism.).
Ask yourself: If I knew nothing about climate change, what would I need to know?
If you have energy and are engaged in the material, your audience will enjoy it more.
If you want to get better at public engagement, do it often. It is very hard to be a good communicator if you only do it once a year. If you are specifically interested in comedy, attend comedy clubs to get lots of experience hearing different comedians, and to try it yourself!
An example exercise – Write a sentence about your job. Then in a follow up sentence, diffuse your expertise with humour. An example from our member Karina Williams: “I grow plants in computer simulations of the planet, which makes it even more embarrassing how messy my garden is.”
A big thank you to Matt for leading the workshop and to Kirsten Lees for the event idea and managing the logistics of the event.
This week we were lucky to be joined by Dr Kirsten Walsh from the University of Exeter. Kirsten’s work focuses on the Philosophy of science, in particular Isaac Newton’s early modern philosophy. Newton is well known for believing that women did not have a place in science, and his Newtonian followers started a new type of science book- Men explaining Newtonian science FOR women, since it was not to be done BY them. It was appropriate for women to read about, and discuss popular scientific theories, but they wouldn’t be invited to intellectual gatherings, or permitted to universities for another 150 years, with some exceptions. This view of excluding women from scientific discovery far pre-dates Newton, but he arguably popularised it given the weight he had in the scientific community. Sadly, some of these views have persisted to today, and Newtonian followers influence has been discussed at length in books by the likes of Laura Miller and Patricia Fara.
While not well documented, there have always been women doing science, although they are often not in visible positions or given appropriate credit for their work. Kirsten proposes this theory to help explain the history of Women in science – Action at a distance. While women were doing science and having influence, it was unseen, both at the time due to prejudice and also now, due to the lack of historical documentation. Yet these women had a profound impact on science despite their separation.
The first woman highlighted in Kirsten’s talk was Margaret Cavendish (1623-1673). While not an experimental scientist in the traditional sense, Margaret Cavendish published a number of works in her own name including poetry, plays and natural philosophy. While shy in character, Cavendish became a lady-in-waiting to Queen Henrietta Maria, wife of Charles I before later marrying William Cavendish, Duke of Newcastle. Margaret had been known for writing down many of her ideas as a child, and continued this into her marriage. While married, she and her husband hosted the so-called ‘Cavendish circle’ – a gathering of intellectuals in their own home. It was not common for women to attend these types of gathering and so by hosting them, Margaret was able to participate in scientific conversation amongst other scholars. Most notably, Margaret Cavendish was the first woman to attend a Royal Society meeting. Her request had initially be denied, however the founders of the Royal Society had never explicitly banned women. She was eventually allowed to go to a meeting, however her ideas were often belittled by her male peers and she was given the nickname ‘Mad Madge’. Her contribution to science has only been fully recognised in the last 50 years and so while not explicitly excluded from scientific circles of the day she was separated from the credit she deserved by a temporal distance.
We then looked at the story of Emilie Du Châtelet, a mathematician and physicist who lived from 1706-1749 in France. She benefited from an indulgent father who encouraged her intellectual curiosity, and the ability to hire tutors for herself in later life. Most of her work is not credited, with many of her contributions thought to have been published in other books. In particular, she is thought to have contributed to Voltaire’s ‘Elements of future philosophy’. She also had an interesting friendship with Francesco Algarotti, who called her “sufficiently skilled” and is thought to have used her ideas in his Neutonianismo per le dame (‘Newtonism for ladies’). Thankfully some of Du Châtelet’s work was credited. Most well-known is her French translation of Newton’s Principia which included her own work on conservation of energy, and is still the standard translation used today. Also published was a physics textbooks she had written for her 13 year old son. The debate following this publication resulted in her becoming a member of the Academy of Sciences of the Institute of Bologna. Once again, while not fully excluded from science, Emilie was separated from her work, this time by not being given credit for her ideas.
Next, the discussion turned to Laura Bassi (1711-1778), who is recognised to be the second woman in the world to earn a PhD, and the first to do so in science. She was later a salaried employee at the University of Bologna, and the first woman employed as a lecturer and then as a professor at a University. Bologna was well known for being progressive in terms of equality, and yet while she was a professor there she was restricted to carrying out a number of ceremonial duties, and was only allowed to lecture once a term. All of these additional, non-scientific responsibilities would have eaten into her time in which she was able to do her science. This is a something many female academics are still familiar with, although today with less compulsory poetry writing. Laura Bassi also benefited from the patronage of the Archbishop of Bologna, later Pope Benedict XIV. It was with his assistance that she was able to earn her PhD and position at the University. He also helped her gain access to academic books, and later funding to start conducting experiments in her own home. Bassi was perhaps the most accepted to the women in science discussed in this session, and yet was still separated from her science and relied upon male patronage to get access to resources. In this case, due to the ceremonial roles given to her, and the compulsory poetry that went along with it, taking her away from the research.
Finally, Kirsten talked about Mary Anning (1799-1847). Anning came from a very different class to the other women discussed, and her family was by all accounts, poor. It is likely that she was not at all educated, but took over the family business in Lyme Regis selling fossils from the Jurassic coast. These specimens were mostly sold to tourists, while some went to experts for collections and studies that will have informed a significant amount of geological science at the time. The methods that Anning developed would go on to be used more widely, leading her to be labelled as the pioneer of early fossil hunting. It is known from correspondence at the time that Anning’s work influenced a lot of science, however she never had any mention in publications, and was completely excluded from scientific circles. It is part luck that we can ever credit this work to Mary Anning – had her brother not been away at a work, or had there simply been another male in the shop, she would likely not have got any credit at all. Anning is more excluded from scientific circles than these other women, due to both class and gender. Despite this, the influence she had on the field of geosciences is profound.
Often when women in science are discussed, we talk of women being excluded from their fields. This is not always the case. As we have seen, a number of these women looked like they were being included, whether being given access to the Royal Society or a professor of a University. However, despite these signs of inclusion, all of these women were separated from their work in one way or another. Kirsten argues that this is a more accurate description – these women were separated from their scientific communities and influences science from a distance. The discussion that followed Kirsten’s talk centred on some of the class divides that these women also faced, and how this often also caused a further separation. It is interesting to think about how some of these separations are still seen today, and I’m sure this will be topic of many conversations in the future.
Yes. How can we work to fix it?
Inspired by MIT’s report on the status of women in science, we wanted to know what the data says about the gender balance at the University of Exeter and the Met Office, from junior to senior levels.
Gender (and other diversity) statistics allow us to understand our present situation and help us find ways to increase the representation of women and other identities at senior levels in our institutions.
March’s WiC meeting provided an opportunity to discuss gender balance and gain some insight into what gender statistics tell us about our institutions. We were joined by Professor Janice Kay, Provost at the University of Exeter, and Dr Jenny Cook, data insight consultant on Equality, Diversity and Inclusion at the Met Office.
First it is important to note that gender is not binary, but for the for the purposes of protection of identity anyone who has identified as ‘Other’ data are not shown. Penny Maher introduced some data from the University of Exeter, looking at the student numbers feeding climate disciplines at Exeter and showed that most Geography undergraduate and postgraduate students are women, while in Mathematics and Physics more students are men. For both Geography and Mathematics, there are more women in the lower salary grades compared to men (in both post-doc and permanent staff). Furthermore, there are more men employed in Geography and Mathematics (in both post-doc and permanent staff). This raises several important and interconnected questions:
- How do we increase the participation of women in undergraduate and postgraduate Mathematics and Physics?
- Why are women employed at lower grades than men in Geography and Mathematics? Are women being employed at lower rates or are women missing out on opportunities to progress into more senior roles? What could be the barriers here?
- What can we do to support women’s progression in the scientific workplace?
Janice Kay highlighted that there is widespread desire for the University to be an inclusive environment, and the University is committed to fostering a supportive and inclusive environment. Every aspect of progression and reward is scrutinised to aim to close the gender pay gap, which has been reducing in the last few years. There has been improvement in STEM colleges but still a long way to go. There is also an important need to consider intersectionality and ensuring we create an environment in which everyone can thrive.
Jenny Cook spoke as an EDI data consultant professional, first highlighting some of the factors contributing to gender imbalance. Women are impacted at every stage of life, encountering gender stereotyping and unconscious bias from the beginning. This sentiment was echoed in the meeting chat that the issues attracting women into male dominated professions are widespread across society and from an early age. Anecdotally, many women who achieve in science today come from supportive homes where these issues are understood, and encouraged to reject stereotypes, or attended all-girls schools where there was more support for girls studying traditionally male dominated subjects.
Jenny outlined two typical issues of horizontal segregation across organisations, where we often see more women compared to men in more administrative focussed areas, and vertical segregation, where women are concentrated at lower levels of organisations. At the Met Office, like in many organisations, there are more women working part time compared to men, reflecting their additional caring responsibilities.
At the Met Office there is good gender diversity in more junior roles, and language in job adverts is specifically considered to ensure it is not biased toward attracting men. However, as you look at more senior levels in the research science areas of the office, roles are dominated by men.
In general, women across the workforce are more likely to work part time, face discrimination, be satisfied with current pay, take time off with stress, take time away from workforce, face gender stereotyping and unconscious bias. All these factors make it more difficult for women to progress and lead to fewer women at senior levels – the so called ‘leaky pipeline’.
A meeting attendee reported that Julia Slingo in 2013 showed that 27% of Met Office staff in Science were women. Recent figures show it’s now 32% in the Met Office ‘Science’ area although there are more women in the science profession in other parts of the office. Including those scientists in the Applied Science area brings the percentage to around 37%, though when scientific software engineers are also included the percentage is reduced to 34%. However, the ‘leaky pipeline’ effect means that there are systemic issues and so although the gender diversity is improving overall, it is poor at senior levels, and time alone will be unlikely to simply lead to change. In addition, we must consider intersectionality – proportions of women from BAME and lower socio-economic backgrounds are much lower, which must also be addressed.
One of the first questions referring to the University data was ‘Are we hiring men at greater rates at higher levels or are they negotiating higher pay?’ and quite simply, this is very difficult to unpick given the lack of data available. Attendees talked about how women do not typically push for higher starting salaries. Research into academic promotions, shows that woman apply less, so promotions workshops can help encourage everyone to apply.
Encouragement tends to really help women ‘play the game’ – negotiating salaries and applying for funding are two examples for example. However, it was also noted that the system at the Met Office to ensure equal pay means that everyone is recruited onto the bottom of the salary band, and negotiation is not an option for anyone.
Other anecdotes shared by attendees include: a new staff member assuming a Professor was filling in for a colleague, and after an hour of answering questions the staff member asked when the Professor would be arriving for the conversation, and a female attendee who removed their name from their CV was assumed to be a much older man by a hiring committee because of her experience.
The problems surrounding lack of gender diversity at senior levels are very complex and multi-faceted and we cannot list all the reasons here. To address these problems properly, institutions need to devote time and effort to understanding their quantitative data, perhaps through qualitative surveys from staff to really gain an understanding of the issues. It is likely that many initiatives and a culture change are required to realise true gender diversity across organisations – small isolated improvements will have only limited success.
As is often the case, the potential importance of mentoring and training was discussed. To make a true culture change, mandatory learning about why we need diverse organisations and how everyone needs to play a part in actively helping with organisational aims may be the way forward.
Since 2013 I have been a Senior Scientist at the Met Office. I am an Atmospheric Dispersion Scientist studying how smoke, chemicals, radioactive material, and volcanic ash are transported by the wind.
I work in STEM because I am fascinated by the world around me
My interest in the natural world was first ignited by my parents. My parents both studied geography at university and I was introduced to physical geography during day trips and holidays. It was my parent’s way of entertaining their children and on long walks in the countryside I soon learnt to recognise oxbow lakes and glaciated valleys. As I grew older, I learnt more about the how landscapes were shaped over millennia.
Time spent outdoors as a child not only lead to a passion for environmental science but also a passion for outdoor activities. Ironically, the outdoors is another area where women are vastly outnumbered by men. During my PhD I destressed by spending days hiking alone in North Wales and the Lake District. I never felt unsafe but the men I passed on my walks expressed their surprise that a woman would walk alone in the hills. The advantage of my participation in outdoor sports was that by the time I went to university I was used to being in the minority, one of only a few women in a large group of men.
There were only 4 women in a physics class of 40
I don’t think I was fully aware of the male bias in science until I went to university. I attended a mixed state-run secondary school and both my physics and mathematics classes had approximately equal numbers of boys and girls. University was a stark contrast. In my final two years at St Andrews University there were only 4 women in a physics class of 40.
I disliked maths at school because it was boring. I only took A Level maths because I could see that it complimented A Level physics. Up until the day I filled in my university application form my plan was to study physics and chemistry at university. However, university opened my eyes to the variety of applications of maths from fluid dynamics to biological population modelling and even solar mathematics. In contrast physics started to move to the study of the incredibly small or the unimaginable large and by the time I graduated I knew that I wanted to apply my physics and maths knowledge to the natural world. A summer student placement at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute introduced me to physical oceanography and when I finished university, I applied to do a PhD in oceanography.
Personal protective equipment is designed for the average man
I’m fortunate that I have never encountered malicious behaviour towards women, but I have encountered biases even if they have been unconscious. There was a university lecturer who insisted on addressing everyone in the class as “Mr.”, the delivery drivers who assumed that as we were women, we must be secretaries and the male colleagues who’ve talked over me.
During my first postdoc I spent a month and a half carrying out research at sea and this was when I encountered another challenge. Personal protective equipment is designed for the average man. At the time, and in the shop recommended by the university, boiler suits were only sold in men’s collar sizes. More frustratingly, I couldn’t get steel-toe capped boots in a size small enough for my feet, so I ended up wearing two pairs of socks even when the temperature on deck was in the high 20’s!
After completing my first postdoc position I took on a postdoc position at Duke University in North Carolina, USA. Here I was fortunate to have a fantastic mentor who helped me gain confidence in my ability to do science. She also introduced me to other scientists at meetings and demonstrated that it was possible to be a scientist and have a work-life balance.
As an atmospheric dispersion scientist, I carry out research and provide advice during emergencies
Following my second postdoctoral position I realised that I wanted to do science with a more immediate impact on people, so I moved to the Met Office and switched my science focus from oceanography to atmospheric dispersion science. Within my role as an atmospheric dispersion scientist I carry out research and provide advice during emergencies. For example, when fires tore through the forest surrounding the site Chernobyl accident I worked with other scientists to model the transport of the radioactive material resuspended by the fire and provided reassurance to the UK government that the material would not be transported to the UK.
I’m truly grateful for the women pioneers of the past who paved the way for women in science, but I also feel that there is still of a lot of work to do to achieve gender balance in science. I’m worried that women have become less visible during the recent period of homeworking due to Covid-19. When I look at recordings of virtual meetings the videos are dominated by men even when the meeting attendees were equally split between men and women.
The main takeaways from our discussion were as follow,
The book brings new perspectives to climate change.
There is an emphasis on cross-society approaches. We often come across the activist view, or the economist view, but finding the voice of women, minorities or artists is not the norm. People from all backgrounds, professions and communities share their perspective on climate change, and even bring a certain spirituality to it. Even though the book is US-centric, these new voices add to everyone’s perspective.
The book calls to balance between “cold-hearted” scientific solutions vs. community-social perspectives
The title brings with it the realisation that we have lost things, which we will not be able to get back. There is an underlying assumption that the solutions, technology and advances will make climate change go away. However, the different essays turn this around by showing a balance between the people’s grief towards climate change, and the pro-active approach towards finding solutions to it. There is an acknowledgement of the losses and questioning what the best way to move forward is, for your local community and the global population.
The book questions the way we construct the climate change (and human actions) narrative, and it highlights the importance of integrating art into climate communication. Art can help to reach the general public and make things easier to understand and relate to.
The book highlights the relationship between inequality & climate change.
Climate and fairness used to be intrinsically related in the discourse, especially the interlink between climate and sustainable development goals was clear. However, this has changed in recent years, and the link between poverty and climate change sometimes seems to be forgotten. The book re-emphasises this important link and the need to tackle global inequality to succeed in maintaining a habitable climate around the world.
Throughout the book, the idea that climate solutions have to include all the community has been a strong theme and the importance of tackling inequality. However, the essays also link this to the big picture and the construction of the vision and how intertwined situations related to climate are.
The book is very informative.
The book has a lot of information about very different sub-topics on climate change. The book has references on subjects such as energy costs, historical perspectives on policies, to the community-importance in the health of tree populations. There is an interesting blending of social-science and physical-science.
The book is a statement in itself.
We asked ourselves if the book would reach a bigger audience easily, even though there is a clear place for it. The book continues as a project, so they will probably find ways to reach people and delivering their messages. The intention of the book seems to be more of a resource/reference, than a book to read whole. It would also be an excellent resource for teaching.
The book formalises and condensates various ideas, opinions and knowledge from varied voices. It is a statement in itself, an example of a way forward, by highlighting women and amplifying their voices. We hope male-dominated spaces will make more space for these women and all the other great women working in the climate crisis going forward.
There are multiple avenues to the future, and there is not a single solution to the climate crisis. Everyone will take something different from the essays and poems, take the bits you need from it!
“So, I tell you this not to scare you,
But to prepare you, to dare you
To dream a different reality,
Where despite disparities
We all care to protect this world,
This riddled blue marble, this little true marvel”
Earthrise, Amanda Gorman
Further reading & watching
(Recommended by the session attendants)
+ Too hot to handle – Rebecca Wills, Bristol University Press
+Discussion with Editors & Authors – NY Library – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xBFofSA8RrA
+ Discussion with Editors & Authors – Columbia University – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bdm69OL07Y0
Not just a woman in science: my journey
Freya describes her journey from working class roots to obtaining a doctorate in ocean science and working at the Met Office, and why she is passionate in improving diversity in science through a focus on inclusion.
I am Freya, a climate scientist at the Met Office working on compound events and risk to UK sectors (if you are interested in learning more see my details of a recent webinar here and a recently Tweeted video here for the really short version)! I’m writing this as a woman in science and as a co-founder of the Women in Climate network, which is a support network for women, men and non-binary people at the University of Exeter and Met Office as they progress through their careers, and that helps give scientists, particularly from underrepresented groups, knowledge and skills that will help them succeed in their careers. I see my diversity and climate work as very much interlinked. I work as a climate scientist because I am passionate about helping people to stay safe and thrive, and I think that the changes required to prevent damage to life and economies from high levels of global warming may require large scale adaptation that is likely only to be achieved with cultural change and tackling inequality in our global and local societies (read more about the connection between gender and climate change here). I hope to make some small contribution to this by helping promote women in science and providing events that benefit all.
Although I’m very concerned about the lack of women scientists at senior level still in science and at the Met Office, on a personal level, there are other aspects about me that make me feel more unusual in the Met Office such as identifying as queer (an umbrella term for sexual/gender minorities who are not heterosexual or cisgender) and that I have never wanted to get married nor have children. Many queer people have historically often felt unable to be openly queer at work, and so not being worried about being treated differently because of this at the Met Office is a privilege many in this world still don’t have. These are invisible characteristics that do not impact my work, and if I didn’t tell you, you simply wouldn’t know about them. However, we live in a world where our perceived gender, as well as many other visible factors, influences how people are treated and therefore how they tend to behave. Diversity and inclusion create a positive work culture, and this is linked to productivity and happiness at work. Our science will be better when it is diverse and inclusive of both visible and invisible characteristics at both junior and senior levels. The evidence shows that it is important for aspiring junior colleagues to see role models that help them persevere to senior positions, so it is important to increase gender diversity across senior levels of the organisation as well as other metrics of diversity such as racial and socio-economic background.
Let’s acknowledge our privilege
Science is full of very intelligent and skilled scientists and we all have privilege of some kind. In my case, being white in the area I grew up (the Isle of Man), Southampton and Devon, so I visibly ‘fit in’ to British rural life in Devon where I currently live. I am physically well, apart from being somewhat curvy in a western culture where beauty standards frequently make women feel inferior. I have had the chance to enjoy (and afford!) adventuring from the Three Peaks in the UK, to diving in Zanzibar and trekking in South America after a research cruise to Antarctica. I come from a supportive family where education was valued and where I faced neither discouragement nor excess pressure during my education. I gained confidence during my teenage years as I played music, performed in school plays, and entered public speaking competitions locally – my busy life started young! My parents and the Isle of Man Government helped fund my undergraduate education and my doctorate was funded by the University of Southampton and National Oceanography Centre. My parents are supportive of my career and help me out frequently in many ways, without suggesting I should be doing something that pays more or settling down and having a family ‘before it’s too late’. I am absolutely privileged in ways that many people are not, and I am very grateful for that.
From working class to highly educated
I come from a working-class background, with my family earning in total around £30,000 per year (around the UK median household income in 2019) during my teenage years as my parents ran a small dry-cleaning shop. We certainly were not poor, but I received a standard UK non-selective mixed-gender state school education, which was in line with family values. During sixth form, I took the unusual path of applying to Cambridge, rather than the northern England universities where most of my peers went. I was the only person in my year at school to apply to Oxbridge. I discovered when I started studying Mathematics at King’s College Cambridge that my school was not considered a particularly good school, and anecdotally I have frequently found my colleagues in science to come from significantly more privileged financial backgrounds and/or to have parents with higher status professions. Ultimately, feeling that I did not fit in there (perhaps the first time I experienced the imposter phenomena), together with experiencing depression and a desire to change to a more applied science subject, led me to discontinuing that course after 1 term.
According to Wikipedia, the two highest ranked women scientists in the Met Office in recent years, Julia Slingo and Penny Endersby, had private educations. A colleague has revealed to me that going to all-girls schools can have disadvantages, such as a heightened level of distraction at university(!), but there does seem to be an innate confidence that is instilled by excellent educations. I imagine that at an all-girls school there is a very different atmosphere around taking science at A-Level; for example, my experience of physics and chemistry was of being 1 of 2 or 3 girls in the class. My well-meaning non-selective state school tried to ask me not to include on my UCAS application that I had self-taught myself GCSE Mathematics in a year, something that the school had encouraged me to do, lest it reflect badly on the school. Always tenacious, I respectfully declined to remove evidence of my abilities from my application, but this is just one example of how the experience of non-selective state schools can often dent rather than increase the confidence and resilience of students. In addition, as women, we are not typically encouraged to self-promote (leading to less women applying for progression or requesting pay rises relative to men). As academically excellent students, we often spent time at state school keeping out of sight and mind of bullies, and I certainly experienced mixed teaching and career advice. Despite achieving highly across the board, I always remember the take-away from a school career interview being a suggestion that I study music because I seemed to enjoy it. Yes, I did, but I found the prospect of a musical career quite unstable financially; ironically, my decision to become a research scientist meant I took up my first permanent job (my current one) age 30! I felt music was more of a hobby whereas I excelled at many academic subjects, achieving 9 A* and 2 A GCSEs. I hate to think that other talented young women scientists might still be being encouraged away from, rather than into, STEM subjects.
My perspective as a woman in a science
As a generalisation, men and women are socialised differently in our society. Women tend to exhibit a lack of confidence, resilience and competitive nature relative to men in the workplace which is likely to be a factor in why we see fewer women in senior positions. If you don’t believe this, talk to women close to you about their lived experiences, which may range from instances of overt sexual harassment or long-term abuse to much smaller daily ‘microaggressions’ which wear people down over time (#metoo movement). The power imbalances in science and academia often lead to harassers remaining in science when their victims leave, and (as with other instances of abuse or harassment in society) documented cases of harassment may take years to come to light (recommended watch: Picture a Scientist). More typical examples of these for women range from being unable to give a clear ‘no’ to advances from men because of fear of aggressively objectifying responses, the constant niggling at being asked their marital status for completely irrelevant things, or how they often feel like they end up with an excessive burden of household chores compared to the men they live with. Implicit and explicit biases exist across the media and in children’s books and toys; one of my research scientist colleagues was shocked when her children’s classmates guessed that she worked as a secretary. These biases are general features of life as well as work (though they may be even more likely in a male-dominated work culture). We are human, and we all have biases (have you done unconscious bias training or an IAT test?), objective as our science might be. Even if you see a woman apparently shrugging off microaggressions, she is likely to be internally affected more deeply; as women, we have often been consciously or subconsciously taught that we much not appear over-emotional if we want to succeed. People will also experience microaggressions due to race, disability and other visible characteristics, and I suspect some of our male scientists, especially those who attended state schools, faced bullying due to being labelled a ‘geek’ or ‘nerd’ at school. We all have privilege in some areas, and a lack of it in others; we are all different.
I’ve always been relatively confident in myself and academically very competitive, and I feel sure this has helped me get where I am today, and I have also learnt tools through my twenties about how to be more assertive in my career and increase my resilience to failure. It has felt a little like doing catch up of skills I was never taught at school. I can only imagine how much harder many other people find this path, especially visible minorities and those from lower socio-economic backgrounds, when they might have additional obstacles that they face such as having to care for family members or not having financially or emotionally supportive family. Many schools still struggle to provide the academic stretch that gifted students really need, setting them off at a disadvantage before university.
How do I think we should work to increase diversity in science?
Like many people, I do periodically experience depression and anxiety, and I find that when I do, life is so much harder. There has been a fantastic openness in my workplace around wellbeing since the pandemic started, which is beginning to change the stigma people feel around discussing mental health and people seem keen to discuss and listen to the different challenges people are facing. Increasing our focus on and celebrating our different personalities, skills and experiences will help improve inclusivity, but I believe it will also make for better teams in the workplace. However, we must not forget that under-represented groups face systemic biases, and positive action can help improve action. So, we can also be proactive by mentoring and sponsoring promising young talent from under-represented groups.
Being a woman may have made my path here somewhat more difficult than if I had been a man because of the inherent gender biases that exist throughout society and that make women, non-binary and men who don’t fit their ‘stereotype’ often feel anything from patronised to outright harassed. We all have unconscious biases, and this is still resulting in biases against women in job applications. We need to keep working as individuals and as organisations to keep challenging ourselves on potential bias around our processes, such as hiring and progression, our structure and its power dynamics, and helping aspiring women fulfil their career aims through providing coaching and mentoring to give them the skills and confidence they need. Ultimately, we need to listen and act on what our people tell us about the biases inherent in our language, processes and structure and try to make them more inclusive without defensiveness. Nobody is perfect, and we all make mistakes, but we can all keep trying to be more inclusive.
However, by many diversity metrics, the people in science, particularly in the south west of England, do not represent our society either at the regional, national, or global level and we need to listen beyond our organisations. My relatively underprivileged background compared to many I’ve met in science is something that has surprised and concerned me, because so many people across the UK will have had a more difficult education experience than me and come from much poorer backgrounds. They lack the aspiration and encouragement to get to Russell Group universities, let alone dream of working at a world leading organisation such as the Met Office. I am an advocate of influencing young people from an early age, which we do at the Met Office through our STEM Ambassador programme and our Science Camps. In 2018 I volunteered for the Brilliant Club, an initiative where I worked with students from a local underprivileged school over 6 weeks on a specialist science subject, hopefully giving me enough time with them to have some meaningful impact. Diversity work and outreach take a huge amount of time and energy and it is important that this is recognised and valued when scientists apply for more senior roles.
Finally, there are many different factors contributing to each of our experiences, and therefore consideration of intersectionality is very important (definition: ‘the interconnected nature of social categorizations such as race, class, and gender as they apply to a given individual or group, regarded as creating overlapping and interdependent systems of discrimination or disadvantage’). We should not compare different types of potential disadvantage but consider that people’s experiences may be affected by different types simultaneously and that people will take away different experiences from the same events. We need to strive for inclusion to enable both people who already work in science and those who might enter to feel comfortable at work and ensuring that we not just hire and retain, but see promising talent thrive in the world of science.
My Path into Science: The Masterplan
As a child I knew exactly what I wanted to be when I grew up:
- Age 4-7: Woods-woman – Friend to foxes and owls, I would hunt for my food and live in an underground burrow, traveling only by horse. Farmer’s wife was a back-up option.
- Age 7-12: Famous author, illustrator and wildlife documentary filmmaker – I planned to travel the world, learning about animals and filming BBC documentaries. My travels would inspire my novels.
- Age 12-13: Prime minister – With climate change, war and inequality the world was clearly a mess. I felt called to form a new political party to sort things out.
So, where I am now (Research Fellow in Climate) was not what I imagined! Basically, I’ve just followed my strengths and interests. My childhood dreams were all strongly shaped by a love of the outdoors and a passion to do what I could to make the world a better place. In secondary school I found Maths and Physics challenged but engaged me, driving me to try harder and do better to crack problems. Even so, it wasn’t until a lab class late in my undergraduate degree that I realised Atmospheric Physics/Climate Science was a way to bring these two puzzle pieces together.
So, what helped and what didn’t?
Not knowing what being a scientist meant, in a practical sense
In outreach talks we’d hear: ’the next Einstein might be in this room right now’, ‘the person who solves this problem could be one of you’. This is well-meant, but for me was intimidating more than motivational. I was good at maths but I was fully aware I was not a genius!
Scientists seemed to be another species that could pull new ideas about the world out of the air through sheer brilliance. We’d do experiments in science classes, but these were retreading well-known ground. Being the first to learn something about the world was unimaginable.
Age appropriate outreach or TV showing how individual scientists actually ask questions and solve problems might have helped demystify this. We (rightly!) highlight the names like Einstein or Darwin, who made fantastic discoveries. But in reality most science is incremental, chipping away at small pieces of a bigger problem until an answer emerges.
Lack of confidence
I am in awe of friends who have chased their dreams, whether that’s in science, music, art or business. At some point in secondary school my ambition and confidence to dream big vanished. Sometimes teachers or friends try to be kind by managing expectations: “Science is difficult”, “Oxford is competitive”, “Lots of people want to be vets”, “You need to know the right people to go into politics”.
Those statements are all reasonable and might actually motivate some people. But when we focus too much on cushioning someone from failure there’s a risk of discouraging them from even trying. Whether you’re raising a child or supervising a post-doc, encourage them to just give the next step a go.
Fear of failure, of wasting time on a dead end, or of looking stupid and arrogant are still the biggest barriers I face day-to-day. Imposter syndrome limits my ambition and leaves me paralysed with indecision.
Things that have helped me progress in science
A good start: Family & education
My dad’s an engineer and my mum’s an accountant. STEM subjects were valued my family and our background was financially comfortable.
I went to an all-girls secondary school with a mix of male and female science teachers. I’m not a fan of single-sex schooling, I think it made men and boys seem very ‘other’. But a positive side-effect was that Physics was never a gendered subject for me at school.
University-level Physics was a shock to the system! I could laugh off banter about what I’d done to get my place, but it did make me realise women weren’t the norm here. This was the first time imposter syndrome hit; had I got a place to fill some quota?
Supportive friends and colleagues
I’ve worked alongside hard-working, creative, kind and approachable people. From undergrad on I have been surrounded by friends to bounce ideas off and I’ve not felt in direct/hostile competition with my colleagues, even when we apply for the same grants or jobs.
Good mentorship: Freedom with nudges
I’ve been given support and space through my PhD and post-doc to develop my own ideas, explore side-projects, publish solo, practice writing grants, travel and build a network. I’ve also been nudged to think through how to manage my career and encouraged to apply for jobs or fellowships even if the odds are tough.
Luck – Roadblocks I didn’t hit
I feel very lucky I’ve had all of the above!
A good working environment is something that should be a baseline expectation for everyone. We should all feel safe and accepted at work. Subconscious bias is tough to beat, but it would be nice to think of it as the ‘final boss’ on the road to diversity and inclusion in science, and to pretend we’re all hard at work on that goal. So it’s uncomfortable to say how grateful I am that I’ve had good luck with my mentorship and research groups, compared to female friends who have been mismanaged out of science at ‘best’ and harassed or assaulted at worst.
Also, I’m white, middle-class, cis and in a straight relationship. I have been able to live in the country I grew up in throughout my career to date, but I’ve had the choice to work abroad easily available. I don’t think gender has not played any role in the opportunities I’ve had, but it would be wrong to ignore the privilege I do have.
I’m still taking my career step by step. The next goal is to work towards a permanent research position, but I’m still intimidated by how competitive science is. So for now I’ll work hard and try to be ambitious, and think big, and dare to dream… but we’ll see. Most of all, I want a career where I can use the strengths I have to do work I feel is worthwhile.
…But I could paint my whole science story in a more intentional light. One daydreamed novel from my ‘famous author’ years was a post-apocalyptic romance set in a world ruined by climate change and nuclear war. In my scribbled plans is a note: ‘Gulf stream may shut down? Learn more about climate change’. …8 years and counting!