Supporting Gender Diversity in STEM: A Panel Discussion at Cambridge University

On Wednesday March first, I made my way to Cambridge University to be part of a panel discussing gender diversity. This conversation is happening in education and in the workplace as organisations face rapidly changing environments where talent pools include four generations and customer bases hold expectations higher than ever before. Fostering flexible working environments, nurturing inclusive behaviours and implementing new hiring procedures are just some of the actions companies small and large are instigating.

The grandeur of the Fitzwilliam Museum and the amusing uncertainty of the tourists punting on the Great Ouse calmed my nerves as I approached the shiny new James Dyson building. I was greeted by the Engineering Society’s Diversity Officer, who introduced me to the other panel members; a molecular biologist (Dr Penny Coggill), an engineer turned project manager from Rolls Royce (Stevie Gosling) and the chairperson of the discussion (Miriam Lynn), a biologist turned social worker who has dedicated her life to working with AIDS patients. With such brilliant, passionate people to debate this topic with, I knew it would be a stimulating couple of hours.

The first topic covered was the role women’s networks play in supporting gender diversity. The power of collaboration, support and friendship is infallible, but I personally believe the idea of male or female only clubs is somewhat archaic, and promotes exclusion instead of parity. It’s tough enough convincing men that women’s issues are men’s issues and vice versa, without banning them from the spaces where we work hard to better ourselves and the world around us. They need to be part of the conversation. Perhaps the haunting memories of my girls school days hinder my ability to see the greater good here, but if we’re creating environments that aren’t representative of how we want our society to be, the question ‘what’s the point?’ springs to mind.

Penny’s views on this were eye-opening as she reeled off a list of amazing accomplishments she’s achieved with AWiSE (Association For Women in Science and Engineering) since their formation nearly twenty years ago. Through effective mentoring schemes, inspiring workshops and pure encouragement, AWiSE have given hundreds of women the confidence they need to pursue careers in STEM industries: industries where men typically dominate. Women’s networks don’t have to have the large membership fees and 1300 people long waitlists that The Wing has (A women’s club in New York, frequently covered by Forbes and Vogue), they can be a muse to talented women who may otherwise have given up their dreams.

This discussion led us to deliberate the role men, at all professional levels, play in achieving gender parity. Stevie told us some entertaining stories where men have presumed from her name that she was male, to find out upon meeting her that she is in fact a woman. But why should it make a difference? Why is she treated differently when they realise Stevie isn’t short for Steven? Stevie finished first in her engineering class at Warwick, has worked on the Porsche race team and now manages various teams at Rolls Royce. Did I mention she isn’t even thirty yet? Do the ‘hilarious’ comments and moments of shock really stem from machismo and the incessant need to beat women at what are considered male subjects? I hope not.

What was amazing to see was how vocal the male students in the audience were about the work they’re doing to encourage girls to study engineering at university. This enthusiasm to balance male to female numbers isn’t exclusive to students and professors. Research shows that Millennials and Generation Z want to work for organisations that reflect the diversity of their personal lives. They are asserting their opinions and rejecting corporate policies that don’t match their egalitarian views on gender roles. This is forcing companies to reevaluate their institutionalised ways of working, and as women we have to acknowledge this effort.

My afternoon at Cambridge was fantastic and I felt privileged to be able to share my views and experiences whilst representing the All In Club.

What I learned:

More needs to be done to support young people, especially women, transition from university to the workplace. We need to ensure we are retaining women in STEM roles at every professional level, and that women new to the workplace feel they are being championed to succeed.

We must recognise how meaningful it is for men and women to be a part of a group that shares their values. Employee communities, such as AWiSE, the Rolls Royce Women’s Network and the All In Club, have a huge positive impact within their organisations and on the schools they engage with.

What you can do:

Encourage meaningful discussions within your organisation, society or classroom to raise awareness.

Get out there and talk to young people. Listen to their aspirations and concerns so that they feel they are listened to and supported.

Form your own community to give an ‘organisational voice’ to otherwise individual experiences and opinions.

Develop your awareness of the different operating styles men and women have. Understand the impact of your own style on others and challenge inappropriate behaviours in a professional manner.

Share internal demographic data to promote transparency and set targets. Encourage your company to apply for an Athena Charter award to demonstrate its commitment to gender parity.

The All In Club is a community of men and women at BAE Systems Applied Intelligence who want to improve the gender balance and diversity in our workplace and the tech industry.