Kicking the Elephant Out of the Room

Our network of ScienceGrrl members runs to over 400 nationwide. Where possible, we link our members with local chapters, headed up by enthusiastic chapter leads. Chapters provide opportunities for informal networking, peer support, and grass-roots activism and public engagement, often in partnership with local initiatives.

This post is the first in a short series by Sarah Hughes, our chapter lead from Aberdeen, in which she reflects on activities and organisations she is currently currently engaged with and offers some ideas on how these can connect with the activities of ScienceGrrl. Sarah is a physical oceanographer and she currently works for Marine Scotland Science, a department of the Scottish Government. She is also a workers rights advocate for Prospect Union.

“When I’m involved in outreach, speaking to young people, I focus on the excellent opportunities that a STEM career can offer and I try to avoid any discussion of the difficulties that young women may face as they try and progress in their career. I do this because I truly believe that any girl who wants a STEM career should aim for one, as on balance, the opportunities outweigh any negative aspects that may still exist. But the truth is, that although the situation is improving all of the time, some workplaces are still not as good as they should be, particularly for women.

I see improvements and I’m hopeful for the future, but that doesn’t stop me from wanting more for women currently working in STEM. Just think how much more convincing we (women in STEM) would be as ambassadors to young people if we weren’t always glossing over the difficulties we currently face in balancing work and family life, for mothers, getting access to good childcare and for all women, just being treated equally. It is frustrating that we still need to campaign for fair treatment and equal opportunities for promotion or for managers that realise for organisations to thrive they need to make the most of all the workforce and not miss out on 50% of their potential. In academia, Athena Swan and Project Juno are working hard to put in place clear guidelines to create more equitable workplaces and hence remove the barriers faced by women. Outside of academia there are not always similar initiatives, and here’s where trade unions can step in.

Trade Unions are a force for good, and are as necessary and relevant now as they have always been. Trade unions act to improve the working lives of men and women, making the workplace fairer for all. In the face of austerity, the poorest and less privileged in society often bear the brunt of the pinch and unions offer a chance to ensure that the needs of ordinary workers are not sacrificed in the search for better profits. Because there are still fewer women making it through to senior levels in STEM companies, Prospect Union and the Institution of Engineering Technology (IET) worked in 2015 to prepare and excellent report called Progressing Women in STEM Roles, this is a best practice guide for employers to help them retain and develop the women in their workforce.

Sarah speaking as union representative for Prospect at the 2015 STUC Womens Conference in Dundee, supporting a motion on tackling gender bias in schools.

Sarah speaking as union representative for Prospect at the 2015 STUC Womens Conference in Dundee, supporting a motion on tackling gender bias in schools.

My union, Prospect, represents professional men and women working across many different organisations that employ STEM professionals, both in the public and private sectors. However, across the UK there are many different unions with members who have an interest in women in STEM. The Trades Union Congress women’s conference brings together working women from many different unions, across different sectors, and is an opportunity for those women to debate and set priorities on the issues that challenge us. It’s an excellent event, and it’s inspiring to hear women’s voices, women who are working in all different job sectors, discuss their common experiences and desires – for example a major aim across all sectors is to bring an end to gender inequality in occupations.

I have been lucky enough to attend two trade union women’s conferences over the past year.

The 2016 Prospect delegation to the TUC Womens Conference

The 2016 Prospect delegation to the TUC Womens Conference

The first was the Scottish Trade Unions Congress (STUC) Women’s conference in Dundee in October 2015, where my union, Prospect, supported a motion put forward by a teachers union (EIS) to give teachers the support they need to tackle gender ineqality in schools. The second conference was the Trades Union Congress (TUC) Women’s conference in London in March 2016, where I spoke in support of a motion put forward by the Community union to tackle unequal access to training. Supporting this motion, Prospect highlighted that Modern Apprenticeships offer an excellent route into STEM for all young people, but that some girls are being steered away from STEM apprenticeships towards careers more traditionally associated with women. We must do all we can to stamp out gender inequality in careers, as this is helping to maintain the gender pay gap.

Prospect also put forward motions on unconscious bias, asking for better workplace guidance on good practice to tackle this issue and a motion on the subject of domestic violence, to ensure that employers understand the impact that this may be having on their workforce. Another motion put forward by Prospect, was to ask the TUC to organise an event in time for National Women in Engineering Day (NWED), coming up on June 23 this year. NWED has been going since 2013 and is getting bigger in scope and impact every year. The motion was voted in unanimously and was supported by the rail/transport workers union, RMT, and women from a variety of other sectors, including teachers, all of whom recognised the need for campaigning in this area. We hope that this effort will help make NWED bigger and better in 2016.

So to help boot out the elephant in the room – what can we do to help make our STEM workplaces better for all, including women?

If you work in academia: is your department working towards the Athena Swan  or Juno award?

Wherever you work: Which union represents you? What is your union in doing to support Women in STEM? How about joining in?

How about e-mailing the Prospect/IET report to your colleagues, maybe also your senior management team? Maybe have a quick look at your local policies first and check if there is room for improvement in  following good practice.

Watch out for the NWED campaign from the TUC later in the year – could your organisation get involved?

Pass it on – share your ideas and encourage others to do the same!”