Category Archives: Women in STEM

Women in STEM

Some tips on the recruitment and selection process

Moss-Racusin et al (2012) carried out an experiment in 2012 designed to tease out biases held by academic staff in science faculties. Findings clearly demonstrated that predispositions and preconceptions exist, and that they constitute the precursor to gender disparity in science subjects.

Participants in the study were asked to rate a student application form for the post of laboratory manager. The identical application forms were randomly assigned male or female, hence all variables were controlled … apart from gender: the only variable that could influence the panel members’ decisions regarding the competence of the applicant, was the perceived gender of the applicant.

Findings revealed that the same candidate, when understood to be female, was rated as being less competent than her (identical) male counterpart, and was offered a lower starting salary. Results also showed that the gender of the panel members did not influence their decision: the same bias was evident in both male and female responses.

Moss-Racusin et al’s study is one of many that confirms the reality and consequence of bias, whether conscious or not. It shows how our preconceptions can block and stifle the development and career progression of women in Science.

Accepting that we have biases, and that these can impact upon the lives and career progression of others, and the advancement of science research in general, is hard. But having preconceptions doesn’t make us ‘bad people’. If anything, it makes human: products of our socio-cultural environments. What is essential, however, is identifying, accepting and facing our biases: questioning and interrogating our thoughts and actions, and challenging those of others. So let’s move forward and make positive change for everyone.

Our immediate goal should not be to eradicate our preconceptions and aim to become ‘unconscious bias – free’. It is not that easy. But neither is being complacent an option. The first step towards enabling change, at a personal but also a social level, is to engage in discussions on how to reduce the impact of our bias during decision-making processes. There are many good ideas out there that can help us ensure that our policies and processes mitigate the impact of bias, always remembering that the problem is the system, not the person.

Here are some tips I have picked up from my years of working in gender equality that relate specifically to bias that can affect various stages of the recruitment process, from writing job descriptions and person specifications, through to the interview process. You may find all, or some of these useful.

Starting with the first stage of recruitment: writing job descriptions and person specifications. Try and write job descriptions and person specifications that are inclusive, in order to attract all types of applicants thus widening the applicant pool of talent. Include reference to departmental equality and diversity awards and showcase relevant logos (for example Athena SWAN). Include positive action statements if appropriate i.e. statements specifying that the institution welcomes all applicants, but particularly those from certain backgrounds that are under-represented within the organisation. Positive action, if justified, is legal. Positive discrimination is illegal.

Including a paragraph outlining the institution’s commitment to equality and diversity is also good practice. Making reference to opportunities for interdisciplinary research may also widen the pool of applicants, as would focusing on the benefits that accompany the role – for example, flexible working, coffee mornings, and available development and training opportunities. It seems obvious, but being ‘welcoming’ is also important, something which can be achieved very simply by choosing certain words or phrases (‘will’ and ‘will have’) over others (‘will be expected to’ and ‘should have’). Being tempted to overstate requirements to can lead to good applicants deciding not to apply, as some individuals may be inclined to understate their abilities. It may also be fruitful to avoid stating that the applicant will work long hours as this can put a range of applicants off (for example those with childcare and other caring responsibilities). Think about establishing a search committee to target potential applicants from groups underrepresented in your department. The committee could invite specific suitable candidates to apply: candidates who might not have thought of doing so. Think about where to place your advert. For example, a suitable place might be on WISE, which may help your institution convey the message that it holds “[…] a positive attitude to recruiting a diverse workforce.” (WISE recruitment webpages).

If possible, try to anonymise applicants for the shortlisting process. It is good practice to have, where feasible, a diverse interview panel, with participants having completed recruitment and selection training so that any unconscious biases lurking in the background are nudged towards the surface. The Royal Society have developed a briefing on unconscious bias which alerts panel members to the potential for bias to arise when making a decision. All members receive an electronic copy of the briefing prior to the interview, and it is also read before the start of each recruitment event.

A recent study published in the Journal of Social Sciences (2017) suggested that ‘Women are given a tougher time in interviews than men’. In particular, women are more likely to be interrupted and asked a higher number of follow-up questions than men: “The findings show that there is a pervasive ‘prove it again’ attitude displayed towards women, which may explain why many academic fields continue to be male-dominated.” One of the consequences of this, are that some candidates may have less time to complete their presentations. Our body language is another consideration, as we can emit subtle non-verbal cues that portray our attitudes, positive or negative, towards particular applicants during the interview process.

The Unconscious Bias in Colleges and Higher Education Handbook for trainers issued by the Equality Challenge Unit (ECU) in 2013, suggests that it is important to ensure that “all shortlisting exercises and interviews are properly documented in a standard and consistent manner to show why people were shortlisted and recruited, and how they were more suitable for the post compared with other applicants.” It is also good practice to use a points-based scoring system to encourage objectivity, making sure that the criteria for the post are not unconsciously manipulated during the interview to fit a preferred applicant.

If we ensure that policies and processes are designed to mitigate the impact of bias wherever possible, we have a greater chance of reaching the ultimate goal: the establishment of a level-playing field. An environment where everyone has the same chance of succeeding. Indeed, may the best person win!

Dr Katerina Finnis, Equality and Diversity co-ordinator, Royal Holloway, University of London.

Driving Innovation Through Diversity

Could becoming an entrepreneur be a route for more women to enter the cyber security sector? The WISDOM group, together with HutZero, an early stage accelerator programme, considered this issue and other strategies to promote women in tech at our recent co-hosted event ‘Driving Innovation through Diversity’ at Winton Group, London.

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WISDOM’s London Universities Women in STEM Day

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.

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Positive action in motion

What is the difference between positive action and positive discrimination?

Positive action is when an employer takes steps to help or encourage certain groups of people with different needs, or who are disadvantaged in some way, access work or training. Positive action is lawful under the Equality Act. For example, an employer could organise an open day for people from a particular ethnic background if they’re under-represented in the employer’s workforce. This wouldn’t be unlawful discrimination under the Act.” (Citizens advice 2017)

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Negative Images of Women in Geekdom: you’re either one of the lads or a target, and sometimes both.

I felt like it was time to write something for the WISDOM blog after a topical BBC article was published recently regarding feminine, sexualised AI bots such as Amazon’s Ask Alexa, or Microsoft’s Cortana, or even — as some Big Bang Theory fans may recall — Siri.

I am not going to speculate on what subtle everyday sexism might feel like to a victim, but what I can do is discuss one example of the sexualisation, and therefore depersonalisation, of women in geekdom.

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Don’t underestimate the power of WISDOM

The WISDOM Winter Networking event held on Friday 16 December in the Moore lecture theatre was the last event of 2016 and demonstrated the potential power and influence this group has. The event was opened by the Head of School – Professor Keith Mayes (School of Mathematics & ISG) and Head of Department (ISG). Professor Mayes is a strong supporter of the group and not only does he support the cause of WISDOM (to promote equality and diversity particularly focusing on women) but there is also evidence that it resonates deeper within him, that the desire of WISDOM to encourage and support it’s members is something of the upmost importance. Professor Mayes related to this from his own experiences – he explained that he had not even considered going to university until some friends encouraged him but that when he was there he noticed he lacked slightly in confidence (experiencing imposter syndrome) and relied upon the support and encouragement of his friends to overcome this. Examples such as these demonstrate the power and potential a group of people focused on one cause – supporting and encouraging each other – can have on individual members within the group and each individual the group touches.

After such a strong opener, the rest of the afternoon continued just as powerfully and we heard from the following guest speakers: Caroline Rivett KPMG; Professor Lizzie Coles-Kemp, Information Security Group, Royal Holloway, University of London; Professor Brita Nucinkis, Mathematics, Royal Holloway, University of London; & Bia Bedri KPMG.

Caroline Rivett – Cyber Security Director, Life Sciences – explained how she had felt the need to conform early on in her career due to being surrounded by white, middle class older men. As her career developed she saw the need to conform less important and realised that it was important to be herself. Sometimes different is better, if you are different you are memorable, she explained. She never wants to be defined by her gender, but rather through who she is, a unique individual, not just ‘a woman’. She expressed her frustrations of having to take a redundancy offer when she was informed that if she had a baby she would not be promoted. Consequently, any desire to conform had obviously disappeared when in her next role, she took her baby to Board meetings – creating long-lasting memories for her colleagues. Caroline’s message was clear – be yourself and don’t be scared to be different. Your differences might just be remembered.

Next up to the platform was Professor Lizzie-Coles Kemp from the ISG. Professor Coles-Kemp specialises in working with groups of people not often focused on in the Cyber Security landscape. She spoke passionately about the importance of this and her desire to forge a path ahead for others to follow. Professor Coles-Kemp clearly leads the way in her areas of research and her values of participation, inclusion, community and diversity are very clear as she discusses the work that she does. She believes that her unique standpoint in the cyber-security field and her collaborative, multi-disciplinary approach will enable a diversity of voices to be heard. This is crucial when considering how we can support the equality and diversity cause: Each voice has something to say, each voice must be heard.

Next up was Professor Brita Nucinkis who hilariously described her passion for Pure Maths as being ‘good for nothing’ and shared with us the irony when her son asked her why she was going to talk about wallpaper at a women’s conference. The wallpaper was actually linked to Professor Nucinki’s research – she finds symmetry and groups in patterns and used patterned wallpaper to describe her mathematical group theory. She took us on the journey of her career and fondly described having children along the way to ‘celebrate’. She described how she realised that it was important to build relationships with her academic community and not be stuck at home all the time with the baby. Professor Nucinkis also advocated going to events with new-born babies. ‘Ask a member of staff to put your expressed milk in the fridge for you, you’ll certainly laugh at their reaction’. Breaking down taboos, conformity and old ways of thinking are apparent here. A woman who has chosen to breastfeed should not have to be imprisoned at home just because she has chosen to go with what nature intended. Making nature more normal means being brave and bold and embracing opportunities to challenge the world around us.

Last to the stage was Bia Bedri – a driven career professional, former alumni of the Information Security MSc and current Business Partner at KPMG. Her passion and enthusiasm for work is what really shone through in her talk. She described how when she was younger all she wanted to do was play – and since realising that she had to grow up, she studied and worked hard to develop a career that she clearly loves. She strongly believes in the notion that if you don’t love what you do, why do it? It is important to do something we enjoy as we spend so much of our lives working. Bia described how she had often been discriminated against for being a woman. She used to get a lot of jokes from her peers who were male (because she was a woman in the field) even though she was the most highly qualified out of them all. She handled these situations with humour and felt like this was the best way to allow her voice to be heard.

Regardless of gender – equality and diversity is about placing value on each individual human being, not only celebrating differences but celebrating commonalities, celebrating life. Each individual has a voice and something to offer and there is untapped potential locked inside each one of us. With the right people supporting and encouraging us we can learn to become less afraid of who we are and begin to celebrate who we are. We can learn to be bold in situations that require it of us and brush aside what others think. We can listen to one another and place importance on each voice and opinion (although some may be different to our own). Once we have discovered who we really are I hope that we (both men and women) can learn to let go and enjoy the lives and careers that we have. Whether that includes looking at patterns in wallpaper, running the School of Maths & ISG or writing a blog post on WISDOM – the notion of equality and diversity means we all have something to offer.

Of course, after all of this deep deliberating, networking commenced and continuing dialogues and thoughts were washed down with some delicious mulled wine and mince pies. WISDOM runs regular speaking and networking events on gender and equality for women in the field of Maths and Information Security. Stay connected and up to date by joining the mailing list. Email: to be added. We would love to see you at our next event – get involved and join the conversation.


School Manager

School of Maths & ISG

[Left to Right] Thyla Van Der Merwe, Bia Bedri, Professor Brita Nucinkis, Professor Lizzie Coles Kemp and Sheila Cobourne.

For more pictures, please view and like our album on our WISDOM facebook page.

The Athena Swan award: here we go again…

Here we go again…

I remember an email from Siaw-Lynn with that subject line when we had failed in our second attempt to obtain accreditation from Athena Swan. Now we have made it three failed attempts out of three, and as the person who was leading the School for all three bids one might imagine that I would begin to question if the effort was worthwhile. But it is imperative to remember the importance of the equality agenda: far more important than any stamp of approval is that we continue to pursue what is right for all our staff, and continue to work for an environment that we can all feel comfortable in so that we do not let talent slip through our fingers. The agenda is worth the effort, and we should not forget that. The work of WISDOM helps the School tremendously in this regard, and it is exciting to see their plans for the coming year. There is still a job to be done, and I hope that the whole School can focus on the positive steps that we can and should take, and take some pride in what we have done already.

For more information on the Athena Swan award visit:

Professor James McKee
Head of Department (Mathematics)

First Networking Lunch

As it was the start of term, we invited all female post graduate students in the Information Security and Mathematics department to a networking lunch. It was a great opportunity to meet everyone and introduce ourselves.

Thank you to everyone that came, we hope to see everyone soon!



The WISDOM Group meets Professor Averil MacDonald (OBE)

On June 22nd 2016, members of the WISDOM group at Royal Holloway and the Head of the Information Security Group, Professor Keith Mayes, were privileged to have an “Ask Me Anything” session with Professor Averil MacDonald (OBE). In the course of the half hour session, WISDOM group members asked wide ranging questions,  and Professor Mayes reiterated his commitment to increasing the number of female staff and students in the department and asked Averil for practical suggestions as to how this could be achieved.

The full transcript of the session can be seen here.

Professor Averil MacDonald OBE

Averil MacDonald has been very active in encouraging girls into science and in advancing women’s careers in science. Amongst her many roles, she is a member of the Athena SWAN Advisory Committee, and a Women in Science, Technology and Engineering (WISE) board member. She led the “Not for People like me?”  research into the reasons that females are under-represented in STEM subjects, and authored its final report. Resources have been developed as a result of this research (People Like Me)  which are designed to show young girls that they can fit in, enjoy success and be happy if they choose STEM as a career.