UCL: Breaking the bias for International Women’s Day 2022

The theme of International Women’s Day 2022 is #BreakTheBias and everyone is encouraged to imagine a “gender equal world”, which is free of biases, stereotypes and discrimination against women.

From Education to Engineering and Epidemiology, female academics from across UCL have been sharing their thoughts on the event and asking whether it is truly possible to #BreakTheBias and change the way that women live.

Dr Priti Parikh (UCL Bartlett School of Sustainable Construction) is an engineer who is passionate about providing infrastructure services to marginalised communities globally. However, she believes this is only possible if the right people are involved at all levels.

Dr Parikh said: “Women and girls bear the burden of poor infrastructure and climate. As built environment professionals we aim to design cities and settlements that are inclusive and safe for all. But how can we achieve that without diversity and representation in the sector?

“We need to understand day-to-day lived experiences across socio-demographic groups for which we need representation. Diversity in leadership also fosters innovation which will be key in enhancing resilience for future shocks and stresses.”

Dr Parikhis also asking people to challenge their preconceptions about women in Engineering.

She added: “I like the theme #BreaktheBias. As an engineer I invite everyone to reconsider what an engineer looks like and should do in the 21st century. With challenges such as climate change, Covid-19 and conflict, the engineering community needs strong leadership to build resilience and deliver the infrastructure required to improve living conditions.

“Secondly, diversity and representation is crucial in the engineering sector to better design and deliver solutions for diverse population groups. Currently only 14.5% of professional engineers in the UK are women, and only 10% are from Black, Asian or minority ethnic background (EngineeringUK data, 2020).

“Thirdly, we need diversity at senior management and leadership in the sector with schemes for retention and progression for women and other minority groups. This will foster creativity and innovation and help us fully #breakthebias.”

This is a sentiment that is echoed by Professor Ijeoma Uchegbu (UCL School of Pharmacy).

Professor Uchegbu is a Professor of Pharmaceutical Nanoscience at UCL, alongside being UCL’s Pro-Vice Provost for Africa and The Middle East, the Provosts’ Envoy for Race Equality and Chief Scientific Officer of UCL spinout, Nanomerics Ltd.

She has been awarded various prizes for her work, notably, the UK Department for Business Innovation Skills’ “Women of Outstanding Achievement in Science Engineering and Technology” award.

Professor Uchegbusaid: “Representation matters. It is very important that women and girls are represented in our scientific community at all levels, right from the work experience science student to the principal laboratory head, as the agenda is set by the leaders in the field.

“If a wider range of scientific problems are to be solved for the benefit of all society, women will have to lead in order to articulate and execute on our need. This is because, a diversity of people and ideas, in any endeavour, helps everyone and not just your daughter, sister, granddaughter or niece.”

As an institution, UCL has worked hard to transform and support gender equality within higher education and has retained its Silver Athena Swan award status for the next five years.

There are also 41 awards currently held by UCL departments, the highest number of any UK higher education institution, including three at Gold level and 17 at Silver.

Dr Lola Solebo is part of UCL’s Great Ormond Street Institute of Child Health, which received Gold Athena Swan status. But, following the pandemic, she says even more needs to be done to sustain this achievement.

Dr Solebo said: “UCL Great Ormond Street Institute of Child Health worked hard for its Athena Swan Gold Award, so I think that we are well placed, alongside others at UCL, to provide leadership in the field of gender equity. We know that broader cultural change is slow, for example, there is still the preconception that more women in a STEM area leads to that area being labelled as a ‘soft’ science and ‘less rigorous, less trustworthy and less deserving of research funding’.

“So, however much I want today to be a day of positivity, I’d also like it to be a call to arms for women in STEM; we cannot lose the precious advances we’ve gained. The pandemic has exacerbated the gender attainment gap in science, particularly when it comes to post-graduate career progression.

“Also, as a black post-graduate female clinical academic, I know that I’ve been conditioned to think that I have to be twice as good to get half as far. We need to make sure that earlier career researchers, academics, professional staff, students and teachers (irrespective of their gender/sex/ethnic background) strive for excellence from a position of joy rather than fear, because then they are less likely to mistake activity for productivity, and everyone wins. This idea is supported by programmes such as Soapbox Science – which promotes women and non-binary scientists. It is back in London this year and will need your support.”

Dr Eloise Marais (UCL Geography) added: “International Women’s Day is an important day to reflect on whether we’re doing enough to create a welcoming, inclusive and supportive environment to ensure that the talented students we teach at UCL who identify as female consider pursuing careers in academia.”

So, what more can be done to help achieve the mission of International Women’s Day 2022 and #BreakTheBias?

Dr Naaheed Mukadam (UCL Psychiatry) believes that awareness is key to achieving equality.

Dr Mukadam – who is a Principle Research Fellow at UCL and a consultant psychiatrist with the UCLH Mental Health Liaison Team – said: “To dismantle biases, we need to acknowledge they exist and make ourselves publicly accountable for targets to overcome them.”

Meanwhile, Professor Monica Lakhanpaul (UCL Great Ormond Street Institute of Child Health) says that breaking the bias starts with changing how we think.

She explained: “We will never remove bias – it is a human impediment. But together we can aim for a better world where women are included, respected and accepted for who we are and what we do to make society a better place for all.”

Professor Mariya Moosajee (UCL Institute of Ophthalmology), who is a clinician-scientist and the current President of Women in Vision UK, agreed: “I think it is difficult for anyone to say that they are truly unbiased and we still have a long way to go with regards to tackling diversity both in our workplaces and communities.

“But awareness is the first step towards change and by challenging our thought processes and being mindful of our own biases we may be able to make giant leaps into levelling the playing field for the future.”

And both Dr Tamjid Mujtaba (IOE, UCL’s Faculty of Education & Society) believes that making these changes could have an impact for future generations of women – including her own daughter.

Dr Mujtaba said: “The philosophy I have adopted and that which I instil into my daughter is that females need to worry less about fitting into glass slippers and more about shattering glass ceilings. It is important for women and girls to set their own expectations and standards in life rather than accept those set for them by others.

“When setting our educational and professional goals in life it matters not that going against the norm makes others uncomfortable, it matters that we establish our own sense of self and self-worth. Being true to one-self is the starting point of breaking those glass ceilings.”

Meanwhile, Professor Kristin Bakke (UCL Political Science) summed up the importance of the day on a global scale. She said: “International Women’s Day is a day to celebrate all the women who have fought and, importantly, continue to fight for our rights. It’s a day to celebrate the women who stand up and mobilize against oppression, who defend human rights, and work to achieve peace both in their community and internationally.”

Comments are closed.