International Women’s Day 2022: Break the Bias
As part of our IWD 2022 celebrating women's achievement and raising awareness against bias, we talked to a selection of the inspirational women working with Cambridge Spark and asked them about their views on bias-related topics. Obviously they had some thought provoking opinions and some excellent advice!
We spoke to front-end engineer Caroline, Principal research scientist and lecturer Lilia Georgieva, Cambridge PhD student Sian Gooding, course instructor and womens’ health start-up co-founder Alexis Abayomi, Cambridge Spark fellow and analytics academic advisor Susan Mulcahy, assistant professor María Pérez Ortiz, and coach and mathematics tutor Lucy.
What does International Women’s Day mean to you?
For Sian, International Women’s Day means recognising those who have gone before, “In the ongoing fight for equal rights, recognition, and inclusion in both education and within other important areas of society. It is amazing to consider that the University of Cambridge has only awarded degrees to women since the late 1940s! Considering this, it is extremely impressive to witness the huge impact women have made to the University in such a short time!”
Sian’s also keen to mention that the day should be about raising awareness that, “Globally only 49 percent of countries have achieved educational parity between men and women. It is important that those of us in positions of privilege work towards redressing this imbalance.”
For Caroline the focus is celebration of achievement so that reflection promotes even more action, “IWD day is an occasion to acknowledge and celebrate all the achievements of women around the world. Reflecting on those women who stood up for change. And how we are all responsible for promoting change, diversity, and a better balance in our workplace and life. But like all before us, we still need to stand up.”
What does bias in this context mean to you? In what ways can it be broken?
Bias generally implies thinking in restrictive ways that leave many of us behind, explains María, “It means we’re all missing out by not embracing the world’s wonderful diversity. It’s trying to apply the same rules to everyone - harmful for those who don’t fit. It’s a very important conversation, because we humans are all unconsciously biased.”
Similarly Alexis is frustrated that there's often an assumption about the achievements of women, ”It really annoys me when people are shocked by my achievements, not because they are hard things to achieve but because they deemed them hard things to achieve as I am a woman. I am sometimes confused by the bias. Why do people feel being a woman should be a disadvantage?” After coming across Caroline Criado-Perez’s book, Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men, Alexis was inspired to be part of the data analytics conversation, “As a black British Nigerian women, I wanted to have a voice in the systems using data to influence healthcare, workplaces and schools. Data analytics is all about asking the right questions, so, if the questions are biased then the solutions are also biased.”
What’s the most important message you want to send to women in relation to their careers?
“Prioritise finding something that gets you excited mentally, pursue a strength that works well for you. If you are considering parenthood, my advice would be to hold on to some form of work outside of parenthood in some shape or form - the landscape is still biased and women need to keep independence and their voice on their agenda,” says Susan.
Lilia is focused on self-belief, “Women are powerful and capable. We can do everything that we set our minds to. I would say that the most important thing is to believe in our strength and ability.”
María has struggled with the idea that there is one unique best way of leadership, research, academia or even one best way to be a woman because it’s harmful for everyone, “I want to tell women the world needs them to be exactly who they are. We need variety because everyone has something unique to contribute to the world. I have struggled with the terribly wrong stereotype based assertions that some traits are considered female things like sensitivity, modesty, supportiveness, empathy, cooperativeness and not only that, they are then seen as weaknesses outside of good leadership. I see in my field, I am constantly pushed to change my personality to progress forward. The truth is that alternative and possibly stronger forms of leadership lie untapped - hope lies in voices typically unheard.”
Can you name a woman in your workplace or local community that has been a mentor or inspiration? How have they inspired you?
“I couldn’t pick out just one inspiration because supportive female voices have always been present in my life,” explains Lucy who was very fortunate to have some great teachers and role models while at school, “In my A-level maths class, I was one of only two girls taking the subject but both of the teachers who taught us were women and I think having these kinds of role models was very encouraging when I was considering whether to pursue a degree in mathematics.” We all know that women are underrepresented in STEM subjects and addressing this has been a hot topic in education for some time and says Lucy, “For me at least, having these positive role models was really influential.”
Lilia had an outstanding PhD supervisor (Dr. Renate Schmidt), “She was brilliant in her work, and at the same time calm and very patient. I admire her greatly and have learned so much.”
Similarly Sian highlights Ekaterina Kochmar, who is also a lecturer and fellow of Cambridge Spark, as a huge inspiration, “Before I applied to study at Cambridge I saw a video of her delivering the NLP course for Cambridge Spark. It really encouraged me to apply to study Natural Language Processing. Since then she has become a co-author and most importantly a good friend!”
Alexis shouts out Elina Berglund and Alisa Vittias, especially in relation to starting her womens’ healthcare app, “Elina is the co-founder of Natural Cycles showed me that you can apply data analytics to menstrual wellness. Alisa is founder of Flo living, has done amazing research on improving the menstrual cycle experience using lifestyle activities.”
Conversely María has been far less fortunate and when most in need she has found support and inspiration from women lacking, “In the field of technology and science, I have not had female inspiration.” Even when growing up she was not exposed to role models such as Hypatia, Ada Lovelace, or even Marie Curie! However she explains that what she did have, all around, “Strong, brave and feminist women who guided me. These women were not awarded prizes for their work nor even single moments of glory, they were doing the care work or giving their lives to the education of our new generation. Importantly, these women never made me feel fragile, it’s important to make girls feel strong and brave.”
For Susan various women across her career have been an inspiration. Although she wouldn’t single out individuals, she does offer some insightful, practical advice, “Find women and peers from another sector or field, make them what I call your accountability buddies - I have a group I meet with regularly where we discuss our visions, plans and aspirations. It means you have someone supportive on the outside but looking in. Pushing and supporting you and championing your vision - women working together like that, that’s inspired.”
If you could make only one change to make the world a better place for all women, what would you change?
I think most of us would like to see a world where the diversity issue is a non-issue across education, the workplace and health care, and Lilia makes a good overall argument, “Only will we have overcome it. I would like to abolish the token woman phenomenon where a woman is expected or in some cases even required to engage in an activity to showcase women. Women are equal to men as scientists and their participation should be on merit and not on quota.”
Susan says one key change is for there to be access to full education for all women and girls across the world and that a significant part of making the world a better place for women is recognizing inequality, “We need all people, including men, to see the inequality in play each and every day and be the change.”
“We still live in a world of gender stereotypes that assigns categories of interest as well as assigned roles to girls and boys from an early age,” says Sian. “It’s restrictive for both sexes and I believe that if there were less of a top down enforcement of gender stereotypes there would be much more diversity generally.”
Alexis it’s about a better understanding of the female body in healthcare. “It’s so important. I have dedicated my career to closing the data gap in women's healthcare.”
Have you overcome a diversity or disability challenge to arrive at this point in your career journey?
“I think almost every woman I know has,” says Caroline, “From being told I should stick to graphic design as it’s more ‘suitable for women’, to being in toxic work environments where my peers would tell me bluntly that I could not code as competently because I am a woman - and having responsibilities and parts of my job taken away from me as a result!” She uses a relationship analogy to explain how she deals with these situations, “Just like a bad relationship, don’t stay in a job that treats you badly. As clichéd as it may sound, you have to trust in your own abilities. I’ve used negative experiences as fuel to motivate me to prove the unfair stereotypes wrong, and more importantly, prove to myself that I could and will succeed. It’s important to hold on to that.”
“This is a very necessary conversation, we need to stop showing only the cool impressive sides of our career journey and show the struggles as well, so that whoever is going through it at the moment finds support, company and understanding,” says María, “Many of us have struggled with these kinds of challenges. For most of my life I have struggled with endometriosis, a cognition that affects only women, creates significant pain and is severely under researched. Many women it’s consistent pain with minimal relief from treatments, and this significantly impacts their careers. We need to talk about conditions like endometriosis and their effects.”
Alexis is from a working-class background and her key challenge has been financial, “When you have members of your family that are dependent on you for financial support it's extremely hard to find the courage to leave a traditional job and build a start-up.” she explains that there is also a weight of responsibility on all those who take on significant domestic responsibilities, “It’s still usually women that have extra responsibilities at home and so too often have to take a back seat when it comes to their careers - for balance it’s important domestic roles are equitable and shared within any household.”
Susan agrees, “I think it’s still true to say that in many cases, as a woman, life partner choice can have a huge impact positively or negatively on your career, especially when combined with parenting and it’s sensible for people to discuss how they would like the parenthood partnership to happen, to understand that it may change over time and the importance of communicating what works and what doesn't.”
María adding, “Yes there are many issues related to the so-called sticky floor, which refers to those care roles traditionally assigned to women that also affect their careers in many ways. Women experience many issues in their career that come in all forms and shapes, and to very different extents as well depending on race, socioeconomic class, ethnicity and disabilities,” She notes the glass ceiling, much discussed - those invisible barriers and biases that are hard to pinpoint and transgress, “But we also have the more visible and often more quantifiable issues - the lack of references, the impact of care roles, difficulties with maternity - the concrete ceiling.”
In your experience, does being a woman in your profession come with extra mental challenges that you have to overcome, for instance doubting your own ability?
First of all, says Susan, “Know that imposter syndrome is real. Everyone has at least an ounce of it, and that includes men. Once you have an awareness of this, it’s easier to move forward and overcome challenges.”
Caroline speaks out about the extra challenge in toxic work environments, “Even years after leaving a bad workplace, I still find myself experiencing imposter syndrome. However, I am now extremely lucky to be surrounded by the best people, at work and at home. People, who never fail to show support and remind me of how much I have achieved. Appeasing those doubts and motivating me to grow even more.”
“Sometimes it is genuinely an imposter syndrome, sometimes it is not,” says Lilia, “In our field which is evolving rapidly, sometimes doubting your own ability is normal and welcome, it’s OK not to know everything” and she says there is fine line between confidence and arrogance, “We all need to be aware of what we know and what we don't know so that we can learn and we don't cross into arrogance.”
Alexis points to a fundamental and inherent bias, “Health care, workplaces and education systems are all based on the 24-hour cycle which men and women share. However, these systems are not supportive of the menstrual cycle therefore inequality is built in.” She points out that this lack of support leads to so many issues, “Symptoms such as period pain, extreme fatigue, burnout are so common in women because they are trying to eat the same, work the same and participate in these systems that are unsupportive of a woman’s biology.”
Do you think enough is done to help women get into the EdTech industry? Why do we need more women in EdTech?
Lucy argues that we need more women in Edtech because, “It’s so important to reflect the diversity of learners within the organisations providing training and education. It’s important that different voices and perspectives are represented in an industry where learning is the key commodity and human interactions are one of the ways in which we achieve that. When designing curriculums, delivering lessons and supporting students, it’s important to take into account diversity and the differences in preferences and learning styles - a large part of this is having a workforce that is as diverse as the student base that they serve.”
“There are many studies that show that diverse teams are more productive and that diversity in the workplace is a key step to a successful business,” explains Caroline, “I believe an important part of this is to acknowledge the different views, experience and experiences different people can bring to solve problems.”
Sian points out that there is too much emphasis on increasing numbers of women in the field without considering a holistic approach that works at a grass-roots level, “I believe in the idea that - you can’t be what you don’t see’ and it’s really encouraging to see the increase in women in technology and fantastic to have more role models. However, more needs to be done to encourage diversity and access to the right opportunities at an early age.” One area Sian feels could be improved is encouraging more individuals to take up the mantle and do their part, “Women are dramatically underrepresented in computer science yet despite low representation, female researchers are disproportionately tasked with enhancing diversity and inclusion and this is an issue where everyone should be involved.”
Industry Insights Session - Celebrating International Women's Day
As part of International Women's Day, our learners will be hearing from Sian Gooding, Lilia Georgieva, María Pérez Ortiz, Alexis Abayomi and Susan Mulcahy in an Industry Insights Session on Break the Bias.
Date & Time: 8th March 2022
Time: 1 pm to 2 pm