A couple of weeks ago I attended the annual conference of the Bennett Institute for Public Policy, and a fascinating day it was. Everyone in the hall seemed delighted to be back to meeting in person, but there were several hundred more apparently signed up online (I’ve no idea how many people actually turned up, since my experience over the past two years has been in general only about half the sign-ups actually turn up on the day). Fascinating though the day was, that isn’t really what I want to write about in any detail.

The format of the day was a series of panels of three, with a chair. The panels’ compositions were rich and varied so that the dialogue was stimulating and thought provoking, the drawback of this being there was little time for the questions from the audience to be addressed. I want to focus on the panel that was dealing with growth, the specific question being ‘What does ‘progress’ mean in today’s context and how can it be measured?’.  And my question to you, dear reader, is should one worry that the three panellists were all women? Just shortly before this panel started I’d been talking to another member of the audience who had been complaining about ‘manels’, panels only comprising men, at other conferences. To see three women – admittedly with a male chair – still feels unusual. Because it is rare it feels as if it ought to be a positive, but is it? I haven’t decided where I stand on this. On principle I feel we should aim for balance of some sort (and it is worth stressing, there were no male-only panels), but with four panels of three plus a chair for each, what is balance? Diversity of opinion is likely to lead to the best-rounded decisions.

What brought this fact into even sharper focus, was one of the questions. The women had set out their positions about how growth should be defined in ways that aren’t simply about GDP and standard metrics, with much emphasis on inclusion and making sure all voices are heard, be it Cumbrian sheep farmers (as described by Bryan Wynne in his book The Public Value of Science) or Indian women who lack land ownership but have a clear stake in how land is used. The question from the floor was, would the discussion and answers given have been different if three men had been on the panel? It was hard not to feel the answer would undoubtedly have been yes, things would have been different, the emphasis less about inclusion and perhaps more about expertise and economic measures. It was refreshing to have a very different viewpoint.

When have we reached the point when we don’t have to worry about gender composition? For a panel of 3, there are only 4 possible combinations of men and women, although this figure is doubled by considering which the chair is (and can be further nuanced by the involvement of those who don’t identify as either male or female). Of the other three panels that day, there were two that consisted of two women and one man plus a female chair, and one that consisted of two women and one man plus a male chair. Is that balance? It is after all a preponderance of female panellists, although perhaps offset by the fact that the keynote speaker was Patrick Vallance and his session of Q+A was chaired by the University’s VC, Stephen Toope.

The panels comprised people from many different disciplines representing a different sort of diversity, ranging from Engineering (Baroness Brown, aka Julia King) to Philosophy of Science (Anna Alexandrova), via the more obvious disciplines, including the Bennett Professor of Public Policy and co-director of the Bennett Institute Diane Coyle, who is an economist. It is interesting to note that Engineering (plus my own discipline of Physics), Philosophy and Economics are three of the most male-dominated academic disciplines there are, yet all three panellists I name are rather obviously not male. A refreshing change.

A 2015 study on the relationship between perceptions of the need for ‘brilliance’ to succeed in different disciplines and the percentage of women populating these fields showed a very strong inverse correlation. If brilliance was believed to be necessary, then the data showed that there were low percentages of women studying for PhDs in the subject.  In other words, Physics/Engineering, Philosophy and Economics are exactly the disciplines which have brilliance associated them in most people’s minds and relatively few women engaged in them. Two of the authors of this study went on to carry out a further study, this time on young children. In this case, substituting the word brilliance for ‘really, really smart’, it was shown that children as young as six thought, on average, boys were smarter than girls (something that was not true at the age of five). Offered a choice of games to play, by 6 or 7 girls tended to shy away from games they were told were for the smart.

Do you see a connection? The messages that young children receive are very influential in the choices they make later in life. If schools don’t counter stereotyping actively then what is there to push pack on these cultural messages? Headteachers (see my last post) need to be very conscious of this, not blithely assume children always make their choices free from external pressures, even if subliminal ones. I am glad to say I have been asked to present evidence to the Science and Technology Select Committee Inquiry on Diversity and Inclusion in STEM, so I hope to be able to tease out some of these important messages to counter the crude idea that girls simply don’t like hard maths or physics, and that that is natural.





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