Women’s Empowerment in STEM (and Saudi Arabia): Dr Jolanta Weaver

dr-jolanta-weaver-01Dr Jolanta Weaver is a Consultant Endocrinologist working at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Gateshead. She is a Senior Lecturer in Diabetes Medicine at Newcastle University UK and a Visiting Professor at King Abdul Aziz University, Jeddah, KSA. In her ‘Empowering Women’ blog she tells her story of the power of offering help to others to make life more fulfilling.

 

 

Sherin’s story shows us that impossible is nothing and highlights the power of seeking meaningful mentoring to unlock your potential.

Sherin is my ex-PhD student living in a country where women’s privileges are not as generous as in the United Kingdom, yet her aspirations are universal. She is a prime example of a woman who, if given the right mentoring and environment, will flourish.

She is a mother of three living in Saudi Arabia. Her university education started in Egypt where she hoped to qualify as a doctor, but when her mother died prematurely she had to stop studying medicine to look after her siblings. Sherin had the support of her father who recognised that she was more than able to climb a “big mountain” when the time was right. After finally graduating with a degree in Biochemistry, Sherin had just one chance to complete an MRes degree in North Africa. However, she made a conscious decision to abandon it as it was not providing her with enough of a challenge. She ended up completing an MRes in the UK but had to return to Saudi Arabia to join her husband and start a family. A few years later, when her children were old enough, her (female) supervisor suggested she should come to Newcastle University to seek female supervision to mentor her towards a PhD.

It was then that I decided to take on the role of her supervisor as I felt there was a challenge in supporting a female scientist who was clearly keen to do well and needed support. It was also exciting to learn about women’s lives in other countries.

My visits to Saudi Arabia revealed the huge challenges she was facing as a woman in higher education. Nevertheless, her University made it possible for a married woman with children to complete a PhD between two very distinct countries; she took part in a joint supervision scheme between King Abdul Aziz University and Newcastle University, performing experiments in both countries. The advantage of this scheme was that Sherin was not removed from her own environment but was instead improving it from within. We were both creating the building blocks for her PhD but we were also paving the way for other women scientists. But we knew this would not be easy…

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Credit: Dr Jolanta Weaver

I figured out that in a society and institution where women had fewer rights, nor were they as valued or supported as men, the only way to help Sherin was through excellence in clinically relevant research. Her intellectual recognition and respect for exemplar scientific conduct would ultimately allow her to be treated on a par with men.

During Sherin’s research there were probably initially more downs then ups. In taking this role I recognised we could not take any shortcuts as we both wanted this to be relevant to the scientific community and my patients. There were many sleepless nights for both Sherin and myself. We were on uncharted territory, performing experiments that had never been tried before with equipment that did not always work (like many PhDs). Her endeavour was not just about getting significant p values but about solving problems and getting up quickly after a fall. Sherin not only completed a commended PhD thesis but she managed to publish a manuscript in peer review journals higher than she anticipated.

This story is not only about scientific achievement but also about how to achieve this in a balanced and fulfilling way. By now I was more than a supervisor, I was Sherin’s friend. I could advise Sherin on how to cope with the daily demands of teenagers! Sherin and her children are now undertaking very active sports on a regular basis so that her family bonds become even stronger.

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Credit: Dr Jolanta Weaver

So, what was the secret of Sherin’s success? Several words to describe her come to mind: resilient, single-minded, determined, courageous, hard-working. These words may be socially accepted as more masculine attributes, but for Sherin they also came with love for her children and family. Of course, these are certainly not mutually exclusive, but they have to be applied at the right moment. When offered mentoring she worked very hard to reap the benefits from it, although she did not immediately see the advantages of the long-term investment. Over the course of our collaboration, I saw Sherin grow stronger, more assertive and more focused. She learnt to be selective in her research and could decline projects which were lacking in scientific rigor. It was apparent that her knowledge of how to recognise meaningful research was increasing on a daily basis.

The accolades for her hard work grew steadily. Sherin became an Assistant Professor much quicker than others in her institution.  She was allowed to become PhD co-supervisor of my next PhD student from King Abdul Aziz University much earlier than anticipated. Her achievements became recognised by her institution who selected her to apply for a Massachusetts Institute for Technology (MIT) fellowship at short notice. She was not selected this time, but we will try again next year and make it a stronger application. Indeed, if Sherin were awarded an MIT fellowship on the first attempt while this would be fantastic, it would also mean that there’s no further mountain to climb.

So, what is the bottom line message? Believe in yourself that doing the right thing will be recognised. Seek and benefit from help when it is offered. Offer your help to others to make your life journey more fulfilling. Grab opportunities and run with them. Go for it… as Ellen McArthur’s poster says on my wall.

Fighting Against Gendering Toys: Angela Wharrier

Self-professed lifelong feminist Angela Wharrier talks about the gender stereotyping of toys and what she did to fight it. Read on to find out what we can do to help children feel comfortable in pursuing a career free from gender stereotypes. 

As a lifelong feminist and sociologist I have always been acutely aware of the socialisation of gender roles by the media and marketing campaigns, which reinforce the notion of a binary gender that assigns traits, behaviours and status to boys and girls as they grow up.  This has always been especially true of toy marketing campaigns which have been shown to be particularly damaging to girls.  The way children play and the messages they absorb regarding their gender, race, and economic class cannot be underestimated.

Women currently take up an overwhelming majority of roles in the caring, leisure, administrative and secretarial sectors whilst men dominate the managerial and skilled trades.  This is evident in the UK Engineering workforce, of which only 9% are female. It is interesting to note the link between the gendering of these trades and the subtle stereotyping of the toys we play with when we’re young.

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In 2013, I became incensed when walking around Fenwick’s toy department to see the toys signposted as Boys and Girls.  Stereotypically, the active, aggressive, building toys were in the Boys section and the nurturing, housework and craft toys were in the Girls section.  I wished to buy my niece some cars but had to look in the Boys section to find them – I wondered how it would make my niece (and any other child for that matter) feel to have to do that.  This overt gender stereotyping and subtle integration into kids’ everyday lives via the toys they play with surely has an impact on children’s – girls in particular – choices and opportunities in education and employment.

I wrote to the manager of the toy department and expressed my views, referencing relevant sociological studies and citing the campaign that was influencing toy sellers throughout the UK: PinkStinks.  The response, after some back and forth, was that they removed the gendered signs and put up signs simply stating the type of toy. I check each Christmas that the signage remains ungendered and so far, so good.  Speaking out about this hopefully goes some way to encourage children to like whatever they fancy and play as they wish to play without worrying about whether they are acting oddly according to socially constructed barriers. I am hoping this will help young girls to be less constricted in their behaviour, feelings and ambitions and to consider all areas of learning so they assume that they can do any job in the world.

 

Editor’s note: The PinkStinks and Let Toys Be Toys campaigns are incredibly important in raising awareness of gender stereotypes and in fighting for gender equality. Of further interest, particularly related to Angela’s comments about the link between careers and gender roles, is Goldiblox. Fed up with how few females were enrolled on her undergraduate engineering degree, Goldiblox’s founder took matters into her own hands to “disrupt the pink aisle” in toy stores and “introduce girls to the joy of engineering at a young age”. It is perhaps initially sad to say that businesses like these are pioneering in their approach, but on the sunnier side of things, one more option to pique girls’ interest in STEM will never be one too many.

Guest Blogger Deborah Husbands: Intersectionality Finally Comes of Age

We are delighted to present the next instalment of Gender + from guest blogger Deborah Husbands, Doctoral Researcher and Senior Lecturer in the Department of Psychology at the University of Westminster, London.

Intersectionality Finally Comes of Age

With glass in hand, I sit at my desk and reflect on a question posed recently by author and coach, Cherron Inko-Tariah, MBE: how can we bridge the diversity-inclusion gap? How can we, indeed? For a gap certainly exists. But let’s first unpack that word ‘diversity’ a little. Philosopher Nathaniel Coleman once said that diversity is a ‘dirty word’ that allows people to hide behind the real issues because it conveniently blurs the lines. Issues that lie deep within complexities from multiple identities in a fragmented world remain safely hidden under a diversity veil. But, there is fresh hope for clarity! Along comes a plethora of research at just the right time. Waving an ‘intersectionality’ banner, our attention is drawn to a new framework to dissect, particularise and understand these multiple identities. In other words, we are now equipped to bridge the gap. Yet, intersectionality is not new.

Intersectionality existed long before we were given the term in the late 1980s by feminist, critical race theorist and legal scholar, Kimberlé Crenshaw. In fact, it’s the way we have always experienced our life-worlds: as compartmentalised and disaggregated, as individualised and collectivistic, as unique and universal—all at the same time.

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Kimberlé Crenshaw

So, why has ‘intersectionality’ become so fashionable of late? Maybe, because it has divested itself of a ‘childish’ impulse for tunnel-vision and egocentrism characteristic of other frameworks. It has learnt to share its toys: new knowledge and ideas about the multiplicative (not additive) nature of identity. And, at last, it is dressed and ready for the ball, complete with an eclectic assortment of global escorts: gendered and racialised people, neglected feminists, structurally-dominated and politically-oppressed people. But what do we do with them all when they get there, asks the party-going newly-gentrified and socially-privileged among us? The answer, it seems, is that we research and study them to death as if they were, as Professor Gurnam Singh aptly puts it, the ‘exotic animal in the room’. And when we think we’ve ‘done enough’, we put them back into their compartmentalised world until a new social justice paradigm emerges that justifies taking them back out again. Only maybe, this time, using a different critical lens.

The world will likely be a much better place when diversity, inclusion and intersectionality go the way of the record player or tape recorder: as a vintage item that has long since served its purpose.

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But until then, it seems we still have some work to do.

Gender and Race – Guest Blogger: Chi Onwurah MP

Our guest blogger, Chi Onwurah MP, Newcastle Central’s elected MP and Shadow Minister for Culture and the Digital Economy,  discusses her embracement of the term ‘intersectionality’, her experiences as a black female Geordie of Irish and Nigerian decent, brought up on benefits on a council estate by a single, disabled mother, and her career progression from a woman in STEM to a woman in Parliament.

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Chi Onwurah MP

Continue reading “Gender and Race – Guest Blogger: Chi Onwurah MP”

Our ‘post-truth’ world and unconscious gender bias: Sally Shortall

truth-166853_1920Our ‘post-truth’ world and unconscious gender bias: Sally Shortall is the Duke of Northumberland Professor of Rural Economy, in Newcastle University’s Centre for Rural Economy. She talks about unconscious gender bias in our post-truth world.

 

I have long considered my enjoyment of the weekend Financial Times as something of a guilty pleasure. My friends tend to associate the paper with right-wing capitalist sentiments but I have always found the quality of the economic analysis and international news coverage excellent. In particular, I enjoy the Life and Arts section to which many academics contribute on political, historical, and sociological matters. I am heartened by, and often quote, Noam Chomsky who has also lauded the Financial Times for the quality of its international news coverage.

At the moment I am immersed in a project for the Scottish Government, looking at the role of women in agriculture. I have been all over Scotland interviewing women and men about women’s role in agriculture, in farming organisations, and considering cultural practices that impact on gender roles on the farm. I have studied this question now for more than two decades, and I am struck by the huge strides in gender equality, combined with a seemingly contradictory continuing unconscious gender bias and outright sexism. I am analysing the data right now, so I’m constantly thinking about these questions. The other question I have researched in recent years is how knowledge gains legitimacy. Who decides what the truth is? We now have phrases like ‘post-truth’. Different versions of the truth vie to be seen as the correct one. This question, as we all know, is particularly pertinent in the current climate.

It was with delight that I picked up the weekend Financial Times, and saw that Tim Harford had an excellent article asking what we can do to champion the truth. He explains the problem nicely; it is in the interest of some groups to manipulate facts, and he gives the example of the tobacco industry going back to the 1950s. He presents some of the ‘problems’ with facts: they are boring, people can feel threatened by the truth, and an untruth can beat off a complicated set of facts by being easier to understand and remember. He reports that several studies have shown that repeating a false claim, even in the context of debunking that claim, can make it stick. Our memories fade, and we remember only the myth, because the myth was constantly repeated. He argues that one way to try and combat this problem is to nurture scientific curiosity. A group of prestigious social scientists has carried out research that shows those who are curious about the truth, and are motivated to seek it out and look beyond the repetition of a false claim, are those most likely to be persuaded by facts.

This was the first article I read last Saturday, and I then turned to the main section of the paper. I was struck by the headline on the front page that stated ‘Tesco boss fears white men on boards are “endangered”’. There was a further report on page eleven, with a title that repeats ‘Tesco chairman claims white men “endangered”’. The caption on that article reads: ‘Women from ethnic minority backgrounds are in a “propitious period” Tesco’s John Allan said’. Three headlines then: men are threatened, and women from ethnic minorities have the advantage. The text, for those who did read it, notes that John Allan is one of eight white men on a board of eleven. Tesco appointed half of the board slots it filled in 2016 with women, which meant that they went from having one woman on the board in 2015 to three in 2016, slightly more than 25%. The article reports that management experts do not agree with Mr Allan’s rosy assessment of UK board diversity. The article says that women account for only 29 per cent of directors appointed in the UK last year, the lowest proportion since 2012. Why, then, do these articles lead with false claims from Mr Allan? Tim Harford shows that the myth is remembered because it is constantly repeated. This is what has happened here – the false claim is repeated three times, and only to those who read the whole article will the counter-argument be clear. Tim Harford could have used this article as an example for his piece in the magazine.

There are two issues that concern me here. One is the constant repetition of a myth around John Allan’s statement. This is particularly troubling when a different section of the paper has an excellent article about the dangers of this type of presentation of reality. The second is the subliminal message which is, at best, an example of unconscious gender bias; there are no barriers for women, it is ‘in fact’ white men who are under threat.

 

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