Averil MacDonald

Professor Averil MacDonald: “Ask Me Anything”

Q: Can you give the group some background about yourself?

A: Averil MacDonald

I am a physicist by background, I started life as a Physics teacher. And it was only when I was teaching that I spotted that there weren’t many girls, because I had gone through a girls’ school, it wasn’t a problem. So I started trying to find ways to deal with that issue right from the very beginning, in the early 80s, when it hadn’t become “a Topic”.

Move forward a number of years, and I found myself in the university sector, and it was worse still. So suddenly I had a campaign. And I was fortunate because it was suddenly something that people were taking seriously. So I have actually been in a position to go with the flow and whereas years ago it was very much have been “it’s just one of those things” now people are taking it seriously. So I have been with WISE – the Women in Science and Engineering campaign – I’ve been with the Athena Swan Scheme and basically anything that involves getting girls into science I tend to be there. And it’s strange how things pan out because you never plan – this is where I am now.

So, any questions? What would you like to ask me?

Q: So I think that we are now starting to take the issue of women in STEM seriously, but with all these campaigns why is there still such a big gap in the numbers of men vs women in these areas?

A: The strange thing is, actually there isn’t such a big gap if you take it holistically. If you look at STEM subjects in total, women outnumber men in STEM subjects in total, and women out-perform men in STEM subjects at all levels including degree level. It isn’t quite as simple as saying “women don’t do STEM” and it isn’t also the case as some people have said that women don’t choose the “hard” subjects, because they outnumber men 65% women in medicine, 75% women in veterinary science. And you can’t tell me that those aren’t hard subjects! The issue is Physics! One single issue – the issue is Physics at A level. The numbers in A level have not changed in 35 years – its 20% – stubbornly without any change and it has remained at 20%. Because Physics feeds into so many subjects – including cyber security – it’s a good background that’s where the barriers starts, If you don’t get them coming in through the Physics A level then of course there’s very limited numbers.

And Physics A level for girls is the 19th most popular – compared to boys where it is the 4th most popular A Level. Big discrepancy there. So that’s the issue, it’s physics.

Q: What about Mathematics?

A: Interestingly, not mathematics. Mathematics is now over 40% female at A Level and degree level, and rising… so there is an improvement. It isn’t the mathematical side, it’s physics.

Are you surprised at the fact that girls outnumber boys in science generally?

Thyla: Not for earlier ages… school, undergraduate level: but it’s when you get to post graduate level you see female numbers dwindle

A: Now that’s a different issue again..

Q: Numbers are even at degree level, but MSc and PhD level from them on the number of ladies in those areas and those levels are significantly lower

A: It varies from subject to subject. If we look at Chemistry, which is 50:50 at undergraduate level and not far off that at PhD level, the numbers decline enormously after PhD. If you look at Physics as a direct comparator, it’s 20% at undergraduate level, 20%+ at PhD and at PostDoc.. and at 1st position lecturer. So actually in physics, we’re bad at getting them in, but we are actually good at retaining. Chemistry is really good at getting them in, not so good at retaining. So there isn’t a standard behaviour. There are certain things in different areas and you have to look at the whole system to work out what will work in one area and what doesn’t work in another, and there is no Silver Bullet.

Q: So why do you think that so many more women drop out in some subjects as their career goes on, rather than the men who stay?

A: Very complex answer to that one, but broadly the women have higher expectations of the quality of life. And it is the evidence particularly from Chemistry and Biochemistry molecular biochemistry, which are similar subjects but with remarkably different responses from women in those subjects. what we find is that in straight Chemistry, a very traditional subject, the women don’t feel that the environment is conducive to them progressing, they are not going to put up with it, ” I am worth more than this and I am going somewhere else”. In molecular biochemistry – same basic subject but much more modern subject – it seems that the whole environment is much more conducive to equality. So there’s a lot to do with the culture and a lot to do with women saying I am worth more than that, I am not putting up with these appalling conditions this appalling attitude, whatever else, I will find somewhere where people will value me. And work-life balance is part of that consideration.

Q: I was wondering along those lines, you have also worked with cross departmental disciplines. Have you experienced very different atmospheres in different disciplines? Humanities, historical. Is there a noticeable difference in atmosphere?

A: Yes there is. But again it may not be as you expect it to be. So I think what you are referring to is the Athena Swan scheme and I was part of the Athena Swan scheme when it first set up related to STEM disciplines because it was known that women don’t progress in STEM. And it made a lot of progress. And then the Arts and Humanities departments came along and said we really need something like this in our area, to which the STEM people said Why? Surely you are getting it right, we are the problem! So I led the National Initiative to see if we could apply Athena Swan approaches to the arts, humanities and social sciences, with the great expectation that problem was not as acute, and yet it is. But the bizarre thing is there’s a degree of arrogance that they have so many female undergraduates there is not a problem, so they never look at it. And the fact that their numbers of professors, the proportion of women at the Professorial level is as low as it is in Physics hadn’t occurred to them. So it isn’t as simplistic as the STEM departments really have an appalling environment and the women are moving out of them, actually there are problems in ALL departments and in ALL businesses, and the issue is that women are not getting to the top in ANYTHING. It is not peculiar to academia, it also works in Law, it works in business, it works in the police force. There is something about the culture that means women say – I’m fed up, I’m not doing this.

Q: I found that here was a disparity in maths in various universities – for my maths degree it was 20% and when I came here I was really shocked that it was 50-50 undergraduates, which is a huge, huge gap. So I was wondering whether that is to do with what the universities are doing, or just that women are choosing not to go to some universities and to go to other universities?

A: Well again, I think the women are choosing because they want to go to an environment where they feel they belong. This is a very important issue.  This is true at all levels, whether it’s choosing a university or applying for PhD, or applying for a post or applying for a promotion. Women have this need on average – and I am generalising here but this is what the psychology tells us –   to feel that they will they will fit in where they will be. That they will belong.. The phrase they use is the belongingness. If you go to somewhere, or you read a job advert and you don’t see that you will belong, you will choose not to apply – even if you could do the job and even if you would be the best candidate you will choose not to apply. The sense for men is less acute: they don’t have a sense of needing to belong – they just believe they will.  So they don’t cut themselves out of jobs in the same way as women will and that’s one reason  why very few women are applying for either early positions or promotional  positions compared with men is a genuine sense of  that’s not the sort of place I want to be.

Q: Is it to do with confidence?

A: Interestingly no. The research again is clear: it is not to do with their sense of whether they can do the job. They believe they can do the job but they just don’t like the sense of culture or the environment, and they don’t believe it will be conducive to their personal development. That personal work life balance, their personal satisfaction and their progression and they’re making that as a decision. Even subliminally, they will still be looking for a sense of “will I fit” or “Will I be comfortable”, “will I enjoy what I’m doing” rather than “is it a good job, will it pay well?”

Q: Will positive role models help?

A: Only if the positive role models talk in terms of those issues, so if the women who are role models talk about how it is a supportive environment, we do work in a very collaborative supportive team based way, you will be supported in your own personal development, CPD will be available to you, then those sorts of messages with then enable a woman to say “yes then I feel I will belong”. But if the role model simply talks about “this is what I do as an individual”, “this is what I have achieved as an individual” there’s no sense that I as the woman listening will fit in. The messaging has to be very carefully thought through.

Q: What kind of advice would you give to ladies at our level who are doing a PhD, going forwards?

A: Choose your employer carefully! Genuinely, that makes a big difference. There is a very different support environment in certain universities and less so in others. I can speak from personal experience here. I was at Reading when my daughters were very small,  and in retrospect I didn’t think of it at the time because I have no comparator, but in retrospect I was remarkably fortunate in the amount of flexibility that was offered the amount of support I could work from home during the summer. Nobody questioned this –  and this is at a point where the email was very, very basic an there was none of this interconnectivity we have today – and everything was enabled for me to progress to increase my hours progressively as the girls went to school and I had more time. There wasn’t any of the “You’re only part time, you can’t increase your hours” and it was through that support I know now in retrospect that I was then  in a position to take advantage of the opportunities offered to me. I know in other places is it was when you’re gone part time that’s it you’re stuck at part time you can’t apply for promotion offered part time we can’t expect to advance when you’re part time there’s a sense that somehow you opted out of the system if you go part-time. That attitude is what holds people back so be very critical of what’s being offered in terms of support for you as you progress.

Q: I see a lot of female-led initiatives when it comes to addressing cultural change in departments, within organisations. How important is it to have the support of men?

A: Oh, essential! Totally absolutely essential, otherwise it’s a women’s problem and the most important issue is the Head of Department. If a Head of Department is supportive then that peters through all of the different layers and things happen. If a Head of Department says yes that’s fine go ahead and do it, that’s actually not sufficient, and the most effective  departments were those where the head of the department says that this is a project that I take personally and it is going to happen. And it needs to be understood by everybody in the department that this is going to happen – no questions asked. And that level of self-confidence in the Head of Department makes a difference between a culture change and how well we have ticked the boxes but actually nothing is different.

Q: (Keith Mayes – Head of Department, Information Security Group) So I guess that leads to a question from me.. I’m very interested in what you say about the 20% in Physics, because we looked at our student numbers over many years, and our rate is pretty much flat at 20%. It’s a GOOD 20%, we have some really really good and talented female students and it always confuses me why the numbers aren’t higher. We aren’t heavy engineering, it’s a nice – well I believe it’s a nice environment… I can say as Head of Department I’m committed to get more of those quality female students here, I am supportive; I wanted you to come and tell us about your experiences, I wanted the WISDOM group to exist. One of the things that frustrates me is you could have a conversation five years ago about women in STEM subjects, ten years ago, 2 years ago, 3 years ago – I don’t want to have it next year. I’d like some practical things we can do. Most of our teaching is postgraduate so a lot of master students, so I am wondering if we’ve had the problem like with physics in that the undergraduate degree is not getting the right proportion of women through. What can we still do – what is in our capability to try and improve our numbers? We’re kind of reliant on people coming from other courses or we stretch out into schools and show them here’s an interesting area for the future.

A:  So basically you have got two angles that you’ve identified yourself. But one is what I might describe as the short term quite quick win and the other  is the longer term where you’re dealing with girls in school .I think that if you look at the women who are currently undergraduate who might become your postgraduates, you have to understand what happens to the undergraduate level. And that is that women are very pragmatic and all looking to the future from a very early stage in their undergraduate career. Frequently they’re looking for work experience or something similar – internships because we’ve been told it’s good for the CV and women would do something which his good for the CV. And they are being poached by Businesses – Barclays, Ernst and Young and all of the big finance houses, management organisations, and consultancies. These are the places that are offering internships to young women in all of the STEM subjects because they know they are smart cookies. And if you have done an internship in a wonderful place that then goes on to offer you a job, so what’s the temptation? It is to go and follow up where you had a really good summer once .So if you’re really going to break that you’ve got to start poaching them back because at the moment they’re being poached away. I speak from my own experience of my own daughter who did Chemistry. She was going to events with CV writing classes and cheese and wine networking events  – opportunities to visit places from very early on so, she’s immediately seduced to believe the business world has so much more to offer than the MSc or PhD is that being offered in university. Because you hardly hear of the opportunities. So what is you need is to have a campaign of making sure the potential postgraduate students that you are looking for get invited to meet you to undertake activities with you at an early stage in their degree. Don’t wait for 3rd year or 4th year – that’s number 1 –  and be aware that they are looking for personal invitations if you say to a group – a mixed group –  this is an opportunity available to you, typically the guys will believe you’re speaking to each one of them individually the women will assume you’re speaking to somebody else. A personal invitation to a woman is powerful, rather than a global one. So those are my two pieces of advice for your postgraduates.

Do you want the details of the undergraduate one as well? This is where so much time money and effort has been offered and wasted by so many, to get so few doing physics with zero impact over 35 years and what I have is my suggestion which is this. If you really want to know the background read the report for direct called “not for people like me” because the reason why girls and other underrepresented groups because frankly it’s all aspects of diversity they don’t choose physics specifically and Engineering subject more broadly because they don’t believe it’s for people like them. And they will say this – they are saying I’m good at physics, it’s interesting, I see the value in physics but it’s not for people like me. And unfortunately we don’t understand that because it is for people like us so we ignore that phrase and we just say “but it’s great, it’s wonderful!”. When I did the research that led to the “not for people like me” report it turned out with a lot that we have been doing for 20 years that has failed and we now know but it fails we shouldn’t be repeating it and duplicating it. On the other hand there are things that do work (I won’t go to the detail but look at the report) but one thing I did come up with is this one – this is an activity you can do with girls in schools. You go to the school or you invite them in, and it works along with the way we see ourselves and your own personal view of who you are. Who am I? Who is like me? Then I’ll fit in. And it is a simple thing because all they do is they undertake an activity where they find out adjectives that will describe themselves and based upon the adjectives they are mapped onto a  whole host of different roles that they can undertake in the STEM world  – the broad STEM world. This is a poster that shows all of those roles.

This is a way of them saying actually there are people like me there, I can have friends I won’t be alone i won’t be isolated. There’s too much going on at the moment about there’s not women doing stem. So why do something if there’s now women in there that you’ll be on your own.. it’s not a very pleasant opportunity. So here we are saying actually there are women, already doing these things that are like you, you will fit in you will belong. And what it does is it gives the girls who undertake the activity a whole host of suggested roles that they could take, and also the jobs that they might do. And by a wonderful coincidence, we have just produced and IT specific version of this and one of the sponsors is in cyber security. It would be so specific drawing the girls’ attention drawing the girls’ attention to the opportunities that they will never have heard of in your sector. go into the schools using this, it would be an ideal way to do it but there is one final thing that I would say. Talk to the Mums. The one thing we found frim the report was that the biggest barrier to a girl doing STEM is her Mum. If mum doesn’t like the idea, it takes and incredibly strong willed girl to go against what Mum thinks is good idea. And there are a lot of mums out there who don’t really think stem id for girls 0 – didn’t have a good experience in school don’t know people who work in STEM. Cautious, want their daughter to be happy, their advice would be something other than STEM. So we need to get the Mums as part of this conversation. Open Days like this – get the Mums in.

KM There are some interesting tips there… it never occurred to me really to do a programme for people who are studying other subjects that could be attracted via whatever route into the subject, to have events throughout the year just to invite people (maybe introduce the WISDOM group?) that’s something that is in our interest.

A: Because they will all be fantastic possible converts.. What we say is a physicist is only an engineer who didn’t make their mind up yet.

KM It’s kind of  learning the best way to do that, maybe try to and something to encourage female applicants

A: What you need to remember is most science departments have a women in science undergraduate group of some sort who seek to organise events, visits, speakers, whatever else… you could be part of their program. Bring them in to show them round as a group from a neighbouring university. University because they won’t know what cyber security is for example.. Here is something that you might, something that you might be interested in talking about your industry links I think that would be a very powerful message to them whereas at the moment if they’ve never heard of you, how do they know they want to be part of it?  But don’t leave it late – start early because you will have lost them by year 2.  Everybody else gets in first. Have you ever been to a careers event? Hilarious! You will see the big players and you see the small consultancies that actually pay for locations near the big players in order to be able to pick off the Science and Engineering students so I’m going to a large corporation… “No, do come and talk to us!”. And they poach, actively poach, and you need to be poaching too. Even if you don’t think it’s a good thing to do, you have to do for survival.

Q: So this is how to attract women into the department and into STEM.  What do we do for the women who are already there?

A: That’s where Athena Swan comes in, and Athena Swan is about culture change. It isn’t about tick boxes .If you take it seriously,  if you really want to  really want to do it properly it is culture change and it means looking through everything you do whether it is recruiting to a PhD or supporting people to become promoted, we are looking at the maternity leave arrangements everything has to be scrutinised. This actually is this the best way and the fact it’s always been like this for the past 20-30 years isn’t a good enough answer. And everything has to be reviewed to say actually, you were going to do it differently. And sometimes, you get people in a department who say no, this is wrong, we are giving some people too much of an advantage. The answer is no, we’re not, it’s actually all a matter of fairness, because to be honest everybody benefits if the whole environment, the whole culture, is better. And that’s true for all under- represented groups – it’s also true for all people who are less good at putting themselves forward. Some men would benefit from the same opportunities, the same consideration of the multiple ways in which people can contribute, rather than single track approach that many departments have taken with respect to who should be promoted… “what do they look like, what sort of person should we appoint..” .and it’s that very monoculture approach that has led to departments being strongly white middle class male typically. Physics, I have to say, is the worst and I’m a physicist we are the least diverse of the subjects and we really do need to get that sorted.

Q: Is that because of societal images like the Big Bang Theory, white middle class, slightly nerdy?

A: Which comes back to the point “will I feel I belong?” Now I don’t see myself as Sheldon from Big Bang Theory therefore I won’t have to overcome that, but yes, it doesn’t help, so I make a point of not looking like Sheldon (hopefully!)