On June 1st 2017, WISDOM’s London Universities Women in STEM Day was held at the London Mathematical Society in Russell Square, London . The event aimed to connect groups and individuals in London working towards the goal of promoting women in STEM, with interesting speakers from both academia and industry. (Speaker biographies can be seen here.) The event aimed to act as a forum to share ideas, to discuss hurdles and to network; we hoped each attendee would leave with some new ideas they could implement in their workplace and some new contacts.
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.
This week’s Voice and Influence programme was on the topic of Power and Influence. We discussed various social signals that position someone in an authoritative “high” position, versus those for an approachable “low” position. There is a need to recognise when one position is more beneficial to you as an influential voice. As a rule-of-thumb, authoritative signals as a speaker and approachable signals as a listener.
Ammara is a WISDOM member, PhD student and mother to a beautiful one year old daughter. Bareera was born just before Ammara started her PhD and, just as Ammara enters her second year, she tells us about her experiences over the past year.
In March 2015, Dr. Stephen Wolthusen accepted me as his PhD student while I was just two months pregnant. I was very excited to be accepted as I am the first female in my family to do a PhD. By the end of April, I received a formal offer letter from Royal Holloway, followed by the Higher Education Commision of Pakistan providing me with an award letter. I had initially refrained from telling Dr. Wolthusen the truth about my pregnancy, but I had to delay the start date of my PhD because the baby was later than expected and when I did tell Stephen, he was very supportive and understanding. My daughter was born on the 4th October and, just 13 days later, I travelled to Egham and started my PhD on the 21st October. Unfortunately, I had to leave my daughter in Pakistan as I could not manage to complete the paperwork to bring her with me ready in time.
I quickly learnt that the most important factor affecting one’s academic performance is your mental state. I was very sad to leave my daughter in Pakistan and found seeing her on Skype, sitting on other people’s laps and not mine, very upsetting. During this period, I had plenty of time to study but missed her greatly. But, finally, time passed and when she was eight months old I was able to go back to Pakistan to see her. With a bit of difficulty, I managed to bring her home to England with me. I loved having my daughter with me again, but found it very challenging. I spoke to a number of colleagues in a similar situation to me about how they manage completing a PhD with a baby and found myself googling ‘how to manage a PhD with a baby’ many times! I was comforted by hundreds of other stories like mine and found myself motivated and determined to juggle everything.
Underlying my motivation is my supervisor’s support. Countless times he has surprised me with his kindness. He has been incredibly supportive and helped take responsibility for all my problems. During meetings, he will happily hold my daughter if needed. If any woman, anywhere in the world, has someone like Stephen around, I am sure they will be able to achieve their dreams.
Ammara Gul (PhD Student)
Back in June, members of the WISDOM group were fortunate to be able to participate in an ‘Ask Me Anything’ session with Professor Averil MacDonald. A wide variety of the issues and misconceptions surrounding gender and participation in STEM were discussed. One point which particularly stood out to me was the idea that a barrier for girls studying STEM subjects, or aspiring to STEM careers, is the feeling that they will not or do not belong in such an environment. This is discussed at length in a report by the WISE campaign, a body that seeks to inspire women into STEM. For example, the report cites a finding by the Wellcome trust that “young women are more likely to be concerned about science not being a field for ‘people like me’ than young men are”.
Indeed, this issue resonated with some of my own experiences. While I studied an almost entirely STEM programme of A levels (maths, further maths, physics, chemistry and AS German) and never felt that was not a sensible decision, I remember actively choosing against studying A level computing.
One reason for this could have been that teachers were encouraging of my ability to do (for example) physics, but there were no such teachers to encourage me in coding or computer science theory, as this was not on the curriculum up to GCSE level (I hope this is different now, 10 years later). In the interests of fairness to non-STEM subjects, I came to the same conclusion, and had the same lack of encouragement or prior study, for A level economics.
So, with relatively little other information to go on, I looked at the 4 or 5 other students who were going to take the A level computing course. They were all boys, but that didn’t concern me: as it turned out I was going to end up being the only girl in physics and further maths, and the only person studying German. What bothered me was the fact that I felt like I had nothing in common with them. I knew that an interest they all shared was that they liked to play certain computer games, which I didn’t like or didn’t care about, and so I thought I wouldn’t fit into their group. And once I had convinced myself I wouldn’t fit in (despite that fact that I didn’t know most of them that well, so this was not a fair judgement), I decided the course was not for me.
In retrospect, this was possibly a poor decision, especially considering my interest and career in a computer science field today. So, my advice to potential students of STEM subjects (of any gender) is to consider what you are, or might be, interested in, what you are good at, and what skills you would like to develop. Try not to worry about seeming different to others – if everyone has picked subjects they are genuinely interested in, then you will automatically have a common interest with your classmates!
Rachel Player (PhD Student , ISG)