Not our problem?

I went to a lecture hosted by Liverpool John Moores University last week, part of their women in STEM series. they have some fairly prestigious speakers lined up over the coming year, but the inaugural lecture was from The Rt Hon Andrew Miller MP. It was also chaired by Prof Robin Leatherbarrow. With a lack of female role models so often cited as a barrier for women in STEM, this seemed like a major missed opportunity at best, and a huge insult as worst. Now, I have a great deal of love for LJMU. I gained my BSc in Applied Psychology there and found their support and teaching to be exemplary. There were many women in key roles, all of whom seemed to be on an equal footing with the male faculty members, so I had no sense that being a woman would in any way be an issue should I have carried on into a career in Psychology. So to receive an invitation to a lecture supposedly supporting the promotion of women in STEM subjects that couldn’t even find a woman to chair it, made me feel not just the usual anger but also disappointed.

I had felt an enormous sense of empowerment while studying at LJMU. I started the course at a particularly low point in my life personally and came out of it stronger than I have ever been. Gender simply wasn’t an issue; you were an academic and you were supported to achieve your potential, full stop. Period. I have been feeling recently that feminism has taken a marked step backwards in so many areas, too many to delve into here, had this spread to my alma mater too?

It was with trepidation that I headed off to hear the MP speak. I have to admit, I was ready to write a scathing blog about the whole experience. The event started off with a networking session, with students, academics and professionals from across the country. I had some of the most fascinating conversations I have had in a long time; we discussed feminine and masculine thought processes, facts vs creativity, how the two can be used differently and the need for both to spark true innovation. I also spoke to someone who had read the same article I had, about the idea of a default parent. All too often, this is the female in hetero relationships (the intersectional issues here deserve their own blog at least!).

This then led to a different discussion. If the female scientist, or engineer, or any professional really, is also the default carer then she has both the professional pressures and familial ones to deal with too. Add to this that, to be considered a leader in her field she will have been working for at least ten or maybe even twenty years, she will probably have older parents to care for as well. The drain on her personal resources will be enormous. Add to this the fact that there are simply less women in senior positions within STEM, and the pressure on those industry leaders is suddenly immense. So I started to think a little differently.

If women didn’t create this problem, why the hell should it be our responsibility to fix it? I am not suggesting that ‘we’ need ‘men’ to solve ‘our’ problems; I am suggesting this is men’s problem and they should start fixing it.

The lecture itself was fascinating. Mr Miller referred to a government white paper specifically focusing on women in science and research, which identified that archaic working practices that were not family friendly, a lack of mentorship and the pace at which fellowships needed to be achieved all disproportionately affected women as they were effectively, the default carer in their families. he also talked about how the lack of women in research was not just a disservice to women, it was a disservice to Britain. The country was missing out on brilliant minds simply because it couldn’t be flexible enough to retain them.

Women are often the default carers due to the ability to not just retain information but to make connections between the seemingly disparate pieces of data. When a child asks where their toy is they can remember what the child was doing three days ago and so extrapolate where the toy would be. Hence the child asks them first. This skill, this way of thinking can lead to enormous innovation, as the seemingly disparate pieces of data gathered in and across experiments and investigations can be linked in ways that have not been perceived before and applied in ways that turn the theoretical into the practical.

If a sports team wants to sign a key player, that will improve the whole team, they meet their demands. Well, STEM, you need women on your team, and we demand family friendly working practices and support for senior women so they can support us. Get on it.

Written originally for

Some key STEM statistics:

women in STEM statistical infographic

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