Parliament and Me: Inspirational Women

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This year, UCL Public Policy’s ‘Parliament and Me’ podcast series celebrates the women who have inspired UCL academics in honour of the year of VOTE 100. Emma Baxter reflects on what she learnt from producing the series.

In this series we sit down with some of UCL’s finest minds together with the women who have inspired them to take new paths, to push their research and to work with the world of policy. The duos talk us through their personal stories, the value of research in parliament and their top tips for early career researchers.

How impactful can research be in policy making?

In each episode we explore the interface between research and policy, and the often complicated ways evidence and expertise flow into decision making. Throughout the recording, it was inspiring to hear the ‘real world’ impact of academic research and the important role it has to play in the policy process.

One such highlight for me was sitting in the studio with UCL’s Michael Veale, PhD Candidate in Machine Learning, and his inspiration: Professor Lillian Edwards, Professor of Internet Law at the University of Newcastle and a leading women in her field. The two met through a common concern and have since published together as well as worked with the House of Lords.

In this episode they talk about the inherent biases of machine learning and holding government and big companies to account over their potentially sexist and racist systems. As someone who is blissfully unaware of how my every day data is used, this conversation really stuck with me. Especially the role a small (but key) group of researchers play in advocating for better policies. I was reassured to hear that there are great minds, like these two, who are fighting for our “right to an explanation”. Listen to the Big Data Bias episode here.

The importance of female role models

Throughout the series our experts and their inspirations reflect on their work together and the special role a mentor has in shaping our careers. For me the importance of mentorship really shines in our Heritage episode which featured Professor May Cassar, Director of UCL’s Institute for Sustainable Heritage, talking alongside Baroness Margaret Sharp, former member of the House of Lords. The two first met in the dining rooms of Parliament when May was appointed a Special Advisor to Margaret’s Science and Technology Committee.

In recording this I was struck by the strong bond and respect between the two who come from different worlds, and different ways of thinking. They found a common purpose in one another and worked side by side on the 2005 Heritage Science Inquiry which led to significant reforms in the way we preserve our history. One such comment highlighted to me the empowering effect women have on other women. May talks about meeting “a living policy maker (Margaret) who was putting into practice a lot of the ideals I subscribed to.” Listen to the Heritage episode here.

Top tips for the next generations

Finally we asked each duo to give our listeners their top tips for early career researchers on how to steer their work outside the walls of academia and into the world of policy. In the Space Weather episode UCL’s Professor Lucy Green, Professor of Physics, talks passionately with Catherine Burnett from the Met Office. The two met through a research partnership and their efforts to raise awareness of how space weather forecasting can save lives.

These two leading women speak on the importance of being heard, both in the world of policy and research, but the often intimidating barriers to this, a position many women in science, myself included, can relate to. Whether it’s being a victim of imposter syndrome or not being “present at the table” (credit to Sheryl Sandberg’s mantra), visibility is often a real barrier for women. It was therefore great to hear these two successful women talk about their own experiences. As well as providing practical tips on how to overcome barriers and to build confidence in yourself and your work. Listen to the Space Weather episode here.

Final reflections

Through producing this series I was struck by the diverse and often convoluted ways researchers can engage their work with the world of policy. Whether it be a researcher partnering with an external organisation, like Lucy and Catherine, joining a campaigning organisation, like Michael and Lillian, or becoming directly involved in parliament like May, the onus often lies on the shoulders of academics. However it’s evident through these stories that the flow of impartial knowledge into policies is, on both sides of the field, an important and highly respected activity. It begs the question: how can we make this process easier in order to encourage more researchers to break down the walls of academia and to ensure a diverse range of voices are heard by our political leaders?

On a final note I wanted to reflect on the importance of female role models. There are countless quantitative and qualitative studies out there which point to the benefits of having role models. This series highlights to me exceptional female role models who set the standard in their fields, break the mould, and cross boundaries. It’s good to have role models, especially when we grow up. It’s even better when these role models are from a diverse background who offer diverse perspectives and advice. This series has got me thinking about all the mentors in my life and where I would be without them, mental note to send them all Christmas cards this year.

UK Parliament Week is an annual festival that engages people from across the UK with Parliament, explores what it means to them and empowers them to get involved. 2018 marks VOTE 100, 100 years since Parliament passed a law which allowed the first women, and all men, to vote for the first time.

Dr Emma Baxter is a Public Policy Engagement Facilitator working in the UCL Public Policy team. This series was funded through the EPSRC and follows on from our 2017 Parliament and Me series .

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