Why do I “do” diversity and inclusion?

This week my job share in the role of Dean for Diversity and Inclusion,  Simon Chandler-Wilde,  and I have been doing the first of several discussion sessions for staff at University of Reading. We are presenting our initial plans for making our University more diverse and inclusive and asking for feedback on proposed actions to get towards the Diversity and Inclusion targets recently agreed by our University Executive Board (such as increase in women in professorial roles and better representation of women and BAME staff on strategic decision making committees).

One question we got asked was… “you obviously chose to apply for these roles, so what got you into it?”. Here is the answer I gave, the first parts of which I have said before, but the final part I only realised when answering the question!

One of my core values is enabling people to reach their full potential. I have always mentored formally and informally and I love teaching. As a Head of Department I was responsible for career and personal development of academic and research staff. The most joyful parts of my job have been hearing that people have got the degree, new job, promotion or publication that they really deserved. I have literally jumped up and down in my office on several occasions. So a role in promoting and driving diversity and inclusion is very closely aligned to my core values.

I also have a sort of history of challenging gender stereotypes albeit in a parochial way:

When I was 7 I asked my Dad why only boys were allowed to sing in the church choir (he was in it himself). He told me to ask the vicar, who didn’t have a defensible answer (arguments are sometimes made about the different tonal quality of boys voices compared to girls but this was not a high cathedral choir). So two of us joined and pretty soon the number of junior choristers soared now that they could access the talent of the girls.

When I was 12 my male physics teacher told me that girls didn’t do physics. When people tell me I can’t do something, that tends to motivate me to do exactly that (within the confines of socially acceptable behaviour and without breaking laws obviously). Later on, when I told the careers advisor that I wanted to do physics at university, he said “well I suppose you could be a teacher”. I AM a teacher of sorts but I don’t think this is what he had in  mind!

My first (and possibly only) bit of direct campaigning so far concerned the fact that at the boys school in our town they were allowed to study for 10 GCSEs whilst us girls were only allowed to do 8 subjects. To their credit, the school arranged for our Head mistress to teach a class of 6 of us French every morning before school so that we could do 9 subjects, which was a big commitment, but I was never given a satisfactory answer as to why we couldn’t do the same number in the first place.

I have told those stories before. But yesterday it also struck me that there has been another driver in recent years. Having children exposes you to all sorts of gender stereotypes about working parents, mothers versus fathers etc. However, it’s when my children started school, in a primary school that serves a catchment area with great diversity in terms of race, ethnicity, socio-economic background and relationship with education, that I really became aware of some of my own biases. Not only that, but I realised that many of my children’s friends will not have the opportunities that they should have because of various biases, be that relating to gender, race or socio-economic background. Of course at University we see the product of these biases in that students from different backgrounds face additional challenges in applying to, being accepted at and progressing through their courses.

So I took this job in the hope that I can do something, in a small way, to ensure that all my children’s classmates get the opportunities they deserve. The University is my home environment so I start here, but I am now starting to be able to use the learning from this role to challenge my own biases and the behaviour in the School too.




Ada Lovelace Day 2015

Today is Ada Lovelace Day, created as an international celebration of the achievements of women in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM). Two years ago I wrote a blog listing women in science that had inspired me, and invited colleagues to provide their female inspirations from the STEM world. You can see the original blog here .

Since then, there has been much attention on women in STEM, from government reports, the recent People Like Me campaign from WISE, and the infamous cases of “that” shirt and Tim Hunt’s remarks, about which debate still rages.

Athene Donald posted a blog yesterday encouraging us to examine our own biases and question whether we are doing our bit to supporting the next “Ada”. Interestingly, she mentions the implicit bias tests that many of us have been prompted to take, revealing a stronger association of men with science than women. I was shocked when I found a similar result for myself last year – I had a strong implicit bias for men and career vs women and home. The exact opposite of everything that I outwardly advocate and support. Since then I have been doing much exploring about bias and irrational thinking and can recommend “Irrationality: The enemy within” by Ben Goldacre (Foreword) and Stuart Sutherland (Author). There is no easy answer as to how to guard against these biases but I am starting to understand how and when they are most likely to come into play.

Undoubtedly exposure to diverse voices and personality could play a major role in challenging our biases. Over the past 2 years, Twitter has been a key part of broadening the diversity of my network and experience. I can engage in debates, discussions and everyday life with people across the world and across disciplines in a way that would have been a challenge before social media. Today then, for Ada Lovelace Day 2015, I offer you the social media version of my inspiration list. These people have opened my eyes wider, and for that, I thank them.

  • Jedidah Isler @JedidahIslerPhD Astrophysicist and 2015 TED Fellow
  • Mika McKinnon @mikamckinnon Field geophysicist and scifi consultant amongst many others
  • Sam Cristoforetti @astrosamantha    ISS astronaut
  • Nathalie Pettorelli @Petorelli     Ecologist, @SoapboxScience co-founder – Nathalie gave me the opportunity to stand on the South Bank in London and talk about aerosols, which re-ignited my love of science communication.
  • Ruth Mottram @ruth_mottram  climate scientist and glaciologist
  • Kate Marvel @DrKateMarvel climate scientist and science writer. Ex-cosmologist
  • Raychelle Burks  @DrRubidium Analytical chemist
  • Melissa Wilson Sayres @mwilsonsayres Sex chromosomes, populations and evolution. Brilliant posts on starting/running a lab
  • Jenny Martin @JennyMartin_UQ Crystallographer
  • Emma Johnston @DrEmmaLJohnston Professor of Marine Ecology and Ecotoxicology
  • Dr Heather Williams @alrightPET Senior Medical Physicist and @SCience_Grrl Director
 And if you are looking for something to do to celebrate Ada Lovelace Day 2015, why not do one of the things on the “Just one action for women in science” list, also started by Athene.

World Book Day – My women in science bookshelf

In honour of World Book Day and International Women’s Day both occurring this week, here is the list of books that I have either about women scientists or written by women about science, scientists or academia (or any combination of the above). This is not to say I don’t have many excellent books written by men or about male scientists (well actually I don’t have too many of the latter type to be honest but I’m sure they exist).

About Female Scientists

“Dorothy Hodgkin A Life” by Georgina Ferry (I have read and reread this one)

“Mary Somerville, Science, Illumination and the Female Mind” by Kathyrn A. Neeley

“Pythagoras’ Trousers (God, Physics, and the Gender Wars)” by Margaret Werthem

“Rosalind Franklin and DNA” by Anne Sayre

“The Bride of Science (Romance, Reason and Byron’s Daughter)” by Benjamin Woolley

“Nobel Prize Women in Science (Their lives, struggles and momentous discoveries)” by Sharon Bertsch McGrayne

“Rosalyn Yalow Her Life and Work in Medicine” by Eugene Straus, M.D.

“Rosalind Franklin The Dark Lady of DNA” by Brenda Maddox

“Out of the Shadows; Contributions of twentieth century women to physics” Edited by Nina Byers and Gary Williams

“Lisa Meitner A life in physics” by Ruth Lewin Sime

Women writing about science, scientists and explorers (see also some of the above!)

“The Secret Life of Dust” by Hannah Holmes (the book I wish I’d written)

“The Northern Lights” by Lucy Jago

“Galileos’s Daughter A drama of science, faith and love” by Dava Sobel (also wrote “Longitude”)

“Ice Bound One woman’s incredible battle for survival at the South Pole” by Jerri Nielsen

“Mrs P’s Journey” by Sarah Hartley

“The Coldest March” by Susan Solomon

Women in academia

“Negotiating the Glass Ceiling. Careers of Senior Women in the Academic World” Edited by Miriam David and Diana Woodward

“Surviving the academy Feminist Perspectives” Edited by Danusia Malina and Sian Maslin-Prothero

World Book Day Fest

International Women's Day