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Is science an equal playing field for both genders? The Royal Institution investigates

The Royal Institution discussed equal opportunities in STEM with students who have just chosen their A-level subjects.  There is a full report of the student’s discussions on the topic available however the two points the RI picked out were, firstly,  that the students were not fans of the gender-specific recruiting efforts, and this view came from the boys and girls who attended.  Secondly the panel felt that they were directed towards subjects they were expected to perform well in rather than ones they might be otherwise interested in.  Read the full article by the Royal Institution here.

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WomenCount: a Government report on progress for female leadership in Higher Education

As part of the International Women’s Day celebrations Imperial’s President, Alice Gast (pictured below), hosted a UK event to present the new report assessing the presence of women at the highest levels in Universities. This was attended by delegates from across the country, including the Pro Vice Chancellor of Warwick (Viki Cooke); the Vice Provost of UCL (Dame Nicola Brewer); Vice Chancellor at Kent and Chair of Universities UK (Dame Julia Goodfellow); Vice Principal, Aberdeen (Margaret Ross); Pro Chancellor, Bath (Baroness Royall of Blaydon) and the Chief Executive of the BBSRC (Melanie Welham). The morning was introduced by the Rt Hon Micky Morgan MP, Secretary of State for Education and Minister for Women and Equalities. She first voiced what was to be a frequently repeated refrain “the question is not whether women should have an equal role in running the Universities, but how”.

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The report itself http://www.women-count.org/, presented by its author Norma Jarboe OBE, was encouraging in that progress has been made particularly in governing body roles,  where the presence on Executive Committees has grown to 36% in 2015 from 32% in 2013.  These are the pipelines for the highest roles, as well as the committees which drive structural change in the Institutions themselves. Also, the Executive teams for Vice Chancellors are 34% female. However, Chair roles on Executive Committees are still low, with men taking 81% of those positions. Men also make up 78% of Vice Chancellors or Principals, with women increasing their share by 5% since the last report.  One point made several times was the difficulty of sustaining progress within an institution: the increase from 32% to 36% hides a decrease in female representation in some institutions while others have gained a lead.

For the future, a new HE code of governance has been published with an aspirational target of 40% women governing board members, and the Athena SWAN charter mark has been embraced as a sector standard.  The words of our own President and Provost at this event, as well as their very public and active support of Athena initiatives, are playing a strong role embedding the Athena principles in the culture of Imperial.

By Prof Sian Harding, NHLI Institute Lead for Women

How far has higher education come in improving opportunities for women in the sector? 

To celebrate International Women’s Day on the 8th March The Guardian gathered an expert panel to discuss how universities can address gender inequality.

You can read a round up of the issues raised and discussed in The Guardian’s article online.  The pay gap and unconscious bias were just two of the topics raised.

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At NHLI we celebrated International Women’s Day by launching our Women Series podcasts with a chat to Professor Uta Griesenbach.

Should the UK remain a member of the EU: what is best for science?

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Before the end of 2017, members of the public in the UK will vote in a referendum to answer the question “Should the UK remain a member of the EU?”. The voice of science and the impact of EU membership on how we carry out our research (and business) needs to be heard in this debate. EU membership is a topic about which people feel strongly and it is vital that everyone who votes is well informed on how the outcome of the referendum could affect them and the issues they care about.

With this in mind, the Biochemical Society has launched a survey to gather the views of the molecular bioscience community. Everyone can contribute: you don’t need to be a member, based in the UK, a UK national or be at any particular stage of your career. The important thing is to collect information and then use it to raise awareness and ensure that we have an informed debate. Those of us who are voting need to decide where to put our mark on the ballot paper – and the decision we make will determine the UK’s relationship for decades to come.

Are you interested in the impact on collaborations? On the UK funding landscape? On researcher mobility? On something else entirely? There are important points on both sides of the debate so whatever you think, click on the link and spend 10 mins filling in the questionnaire: http://www.surveymonkey.co.uk/r/BiochemSoc_EU_survey. The survey closes on 19 February 2016.

by Dr Charlotte Dodson

Challenges facing society and science in the 21st Century

Last month I attended the annual Cara Science & Civilisation Lecture at The Royal Society, given this year by Lord Martin Rees.  He focused on the challenges facing society and science in the 21st Century from climate change to artificial intelligence.  Couching scientists firmly as members of society, rather than separate from it, he used examples of successes such as stem-cell research, where scientific advice led in the UK to a working legal framework for the use of embryos and stem-cells in research.  He also highlighted GM crops as a topic on which scientists failed to engage early enough with the public, resulting in a polarisation of the debate with eco-campaigners on one side and commercial interests on the other.

The theme of scientists as world citizens was particularly appropriate for Cara, the Council for At-Risk Academics, a charity that started in 1933 in order to support academics Hitler expelled from Germany on racial grounds.  Since then it has gone on to support numerous academics and universities at risk.  Cara fellows are qualified academics at immediate risk, which the charity helps to place in universities, arranging visas if necessary, financial support for academics and their families, and support from the universities such as fee waivers or donations in kind.

In case you are interested in finding more about Cara, their website has more details about the charity and how to support their work .  Lord Rees’ lecture has also been transcribed with a video to follow .

By Dr Michael Cox

Stereotype threat – unconscious bias against yourself!

Many theories are advanced about the perpetuation of female inequality in academic and leadership roles, often concentrating on the practical side of a demanding career.  However, as women move into the majority of PhD and post-doc positions in some areas, and yet progression still stalls, more subtle causes are being explored. Many employers, including Imperial, now offer courses on Unconscious Bias to alert people to their embedded negative prejudices. One particularly interesting form of this is Stereotype Threat. This is a phenomenon occurring in specific situations, for example tests of skill, in which people are or feel themselves to be at risk of confirming negative stereotypes about their social group. It is enhanced when they are reminded of their stereotype group close to the time of the test. Research first showed this in maths exams: equally intelligent women performed worse than men on a difficult maths test. Ticking a box to confirm their gender at the top of the paper made this more likely. However, when told in advance that women typically perform as well as men on the test, their scores equalised. In fact, women generally score better on math-based tests when tested in a female group rather than in a mixed-gender group. This effect is not confined to women: white males did worse when they believed that the object of the test was to demonstrate the superiority of Asian students in maths.  How can we overcome this self-sabotaging behaviour?  Even recognising the phenomenon can help and, for our students and trainees, carefully considering whether our actions can reinforce or remind people of negative stereotypes can be helpful. If you would like to know more, this is a link to an interesting lecture by Prof Jenny Saul (University of Sheffield) on Implicit Bias and Stereotype Threat: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xhaClLHdS-A.

By Prof Sian Harding (NHLI Institute Lead for Women)

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