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Redressing the gender balance

Engaging 11 to 13 year-old girls with science, stipends for graduating female PhD students, greater teacher liaison, and TED-style talks by graduate students were some of the ideas discussed by Fellows, alumni and postgraduates to encourage more women to apply to Trinity as undergraduates and to continue in academia.

The discussion marked the 40th anniversary of the first female postgraduates at Trinity. Among speakers from the 1976 cohort were Dr Ann Ewing, Jane Hamblen and Professor Lynne Pepall. Trinity Fellows, Professors Sarah Worthington and Valerie Gibson, and alumnae Dr Sarah Teichmann and Su-Mei Thompson also spoke at the event, which attracted more than 70 alumni, Fellows and students.

They shared memories and best practice from around the world regarding women’s participation at all levels of higher education and from a range of professions.

Trinity’s Admissions Office runs a varied and expanding access and outreach programme, including events targeted at women. Greater engagement with school teachers will feature in 2017 – a development welcomed by alumna Dr Ewing, who completed her PhD in history at Trinity in 1980, and pursued a career in business policy and strategy, including at BP and HSBC.  She said:

Teachers are so influential in shaping ideas about courses and institutions and both students and parents look to them for advice.

Lynne Pepall completed her PhD in economics at Trinity and is now Professor of Economics at Tufts University in Massachusetts. While Graduate Dean at Tufts she established initiatives aimed at enabling and encouraging more women to pursue postgraduate study and careers in academia. She said:

The under-representation of women and first generation students going on to postgraduate degrees and academic careers can be traced back to decisions made at the undergraduate level. Pipeline programmes at this level can familiarise and encourage undergraduate students, particularly women and particularly in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) and economics (where women are less represented than men) about the opportunities of pursuing academic careers.

TED-style talks, in which graduate students spoke about their research, could be inspirational for undergraduates, she said.

They had 10 minutes or so – three slides at most – to explain their research and why it is important. This gave graduate students an opportunity to speak about the merit and impact of their work in lay terms and gave undergraduates the opportunity to understand the research mission of their university and imagine themselves in it.

Trinity researcher, Sumana Sharma, who is doing a PhD in the biological sciences, said there were two pinch points in academia for women in STEM: at PhD entry level (especially in physics and maths), and with post-doctoral research opportunities across the STEM disciplines. ‘A scholarship programme for Physics and Maths PhDs would definitely encourage women trying to pursue these fields to apply to Trinity,’ she said.

Post-PhD, short fellowships or stipends of one to two years would help women in subjects where the attrition rate is high. ‘Such stipends would enable women with a PhD to develop promising ideas and get a flavour for being an independent researcher, before moving into longer-term fellowships and academic positions,’ Sumana said.

Professor Gibson, who is Director of Studies for Physics at Trinity and Head of the High Energy Physics Research Group at the Cavendish Laboratory, said that such was the importance of redressing the gender balance in STEM that jobs in these disciplines typically required experience of enabling and mentoring women in the workplace.

Previously the UK Spokesperson for the LHCb experiment at CERN, Professor Gibson also works with younger generations to encourage girls to consider pursuing science at university and as a career.

She organised Trinity’s first residential programme in 2016 for women interested in studying STEMM subjects (science, technology, maths and medicine), which was oversubscribed and will henceforth be annual. In 2017, Professor Gibson will lead a STEM event at Trinity for 11 to 13-year-old girls, to raise awareness of what studying science can offer and before decisions have made been made on exam courses. She said engagement at this age was vital.

We have to expose girls early (Years 7-8) to the excitement of science and the career possibilities. We could also provide potential students with help and material that will prepare them for the transition between school and university, for example as in the Isaac Physics project.

Professor Gibson’s gender equality work at Cambridge’s Physics Department led to the highest Athena Swan award – the only university physics department in the UK to achieve gold. She famously introduced two new Chairs to the department – high chairs, to help embed a family-friendly culture and signal to colleagues that having a family and pursuing a career in science were compatible.

The Royal Society recently recognised this work in the inaugural Athena Prize and Professor Gibson is hopeful that the efforts of individuals and institutions in this arena will change the gender landscape of science in future. Currently, only 9% of physics professors in the UK are women.

Dr Sarah Teichmann did her PhD at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology at Cambridge and was a Junior Research Fellow at Trinity. Now a Group Leader at the Hinxton-based European Bioinformatics Institute, she said that world-leading institutions such as Cambridge had a duty to be at the cutting edge of research – and equality.

Excellence and a world-leading position in research should be equalled in the legal/social/organisational structure of Cambridge colleges, departments, institutes, with respect to fundamental values like equality.

Senior Tutor at Trinity, Professor Catherine Barnard, welcomed the fruitful discussion and said the College was experimenting with new approaches.

In the last year we have introduced a women-in-STEMM residential course and BME Student Conference. Trinity’s access and outreach programme is expanding and we are always interested in new ideas. The STEM event for 11 to 13 year-old-girls planned for 2017 is, as far as we are aware, the first of its kind in Cambridge.

Ultimately, the aim is to enable the brightest students from around the world to come to Trinity, regardless of gender, background or financial situation.


Read about Su-Mei Thompson’s campaign and film against gender stereotyping, She Objects.

Find out about Pairings, a photography project for Trinity students, Fellows, staff and alumni to celebrate 40 years of women at the College.

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