Back when I was an undergraduate student of Mathematics I remember periodically receiving emails inviting me to a ‘Women in Maths’ event taking place within the department. Most of these events were targeted at early stage mathematicians (undergraduates, PhD students, and postdocs) who were women, and focused on their career. I never attended any of these events, actively selecting to ignore them instead. In this post I want to share some reasons why I avoided these events, and reflect on how I feel differently now.
To me, at the time, encouraging me to be a woman in maths, when I already was one, seemed to be a pointless exercise. I had known since primary school that I wanted a degree (actually, I recorded aged 11 that by 21 I expected to have three degrees, which proved a tad optimistic) and the natural choice of subject had always been maths. Although I knew women were underrepresented in STEM subjects (I had been the only girl out of 7 students in my A level physics class), I had never felt that being a woman had held me back.
At University, all my close friends on the course happened to be men. This wasn’t because of a lack of women: for the first three years the course consisted of about 40%. There was a noticeable drop to around 20% in the Masters year. One reason I didn’t attend the ‘Women in…’ events at this stage in my career was because I felt self-conscious of what my male friends would think of me going. I didn’t want to single myself out as different. However, I now find identifying myself as a woman to be helpful. Just labelling myself more broadly as ‘human’ (as I used to want to be seen) is, for me, too broad. I think that, if everyone were to just be ‘human’, then we can’t distinguish diversity when we have achieved it. For me, identifying as a woman gives me a way to express the limitations of my experience (so does being white, being middle class, etc).
Another reason I didn’t attend these events is that I used to assume the events targeted at women excluded other genders, although I never checked if this was the case. A group promoting diversity, but excluding certain groups, seemed counterintuitive to me. Not attending was, in part, my way of protesting against this. Nowadays, I still see this as a tricky issue; I value diversity and do not want to exclude anyone but, on the other hand, having a common identity with other members helps build a connection, and find common experiences. In the WISDOM group, we are conscious of this, but we recognise that diversity issues around gender are not just women’s issues – this has been highlighted for example in the high profile HeForShe campaign. Everyone is welcome at WISDOM events, regardless of gender.
Nowadays, I think groups like WISDOM are important as sexism exists and we need to talk about it. What better venue for people to talk about their experiences of sexism in academia, and discuss how we can improve diversity and make progress, than a women in maths event? If such a meeting does not exist, where and how do we have this conversation?
Being involved in the WISDOM group has also given me opportunities I had not expected. As well as starting a conversation around gender, WISDOM has given me a vocabulary and taught me skills that have enabled me to progress as a woman in mathematics / information security. I have enjoyed participating in the Voice and Influence programme and it has enabled me to reflect on and improve my skills in many areas. A key example is networking: I now realise that networking is invaluable for career development. As well as recognising this, by attending WISDOM events I have many opportunities to meet and learn from like-minded people.
Another example is mentoring: I did not previously appreciate the value of a mentor. Maybe, during these events I was invited to, I could have become connected to a PhD student or a postdoc, and been encouraged into research earlier by their example and their success. As it happened, I found my way towards the path of a researcher late in my fourth year, but perhaps it could have been sooner, and what if I hadn’t? Being involved in WISDOM has enabled me to connect with more senior researchers, and given me the chance to offer advice to people in an earlier career stage than myself (e.g. Masters students in mathematics). Providing opportunities for mentorship is an area in which WISDOM hopes to expand, and I am excited to see how this will develop.
In conclusion, since I started my academic career, my attitude towards ‘women in…’ events has changed significantly. Whereas I used to find these events exclusive and feel self-conscious about attending them, I now feel they have helped educate me about the issues facing women in STEM, and equipped me with skills that will be useful as I develop in my career. Being part of an inclusive community, which encourages involvement, has allowed me to build productive connections with members of the department (of all genders) and learn from their experiences. I encourage anyone who is unsure about attending ‘women in…’ events to participate with an open mind; it could be a valuable experience with many benefits.
If this blog has made you curious to attend a WISDOM event, we have two coming up in the next few weeks! Dates and registration information can be found below. Please see our event page for further details of all upcoming events.
Rachel Player, PhD Student.