How do you ChooseToChallenge?

International Women’s Day is a global day celebrating the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women, and it seems that every year we have more and more things to celebrate. With this increase of success brings increased awareness as well. Awareness of achievements made by incredible women in STEM, but also awareness of the discrimination and imbalance still faced by women everyday. That’s why this year’s IWD theme is Choose To Challenge

Individually, we’re all responsible for our own thoughts and actions – all day, every day. We can choose to challenge and call out gender bias, discrimination and stereotyping. We can choose to seek out and celebrate women’s achievements. Collectively, we can create an inclusive and more gender-equal world. From challenge comes change, so let’s all choose to challenge.” 
IDW 2021 Campaign Theme 

With the theme of ‘challenge’ in mind, we asked a number of women in different STEM roles about their experiences, and we hope their answers resonate and inspire you as much as they did us. 

How do you challenge gender bias, discrimination, and stereotyping in your workplace? 

Charlie Dobson, Veterinary Surgeon – “I’m fortunate to work in a women-dominated workforce so issues within the company are almost non-existent. However, working with the public can provide problems. Examples range from being assumed I’m a nurse; verbal sexual propositioning/harassment; once I was inappropriately touched. Most often I challenge all this with quick verbal wit in retort and correcting ignorance directly, but with the latter example I went to HR and the incident was swiftly addressed. I think it’s important to lead by example as a woman confident enough to do so and help others.”  

Nandini Nagra, Geophysicist – “Speaking out. It is hard to do, but after doing it once it gets easier. A lot of the time people aren’t aware of what they have done is wrong and want to be corrected – it helps them learn and avoid doing this in the future.” 

What challenges have you overcome working in STEM? 

Daisy Shearer, Physics PhD Student – “Most of the challenges I have overcome so far are related to being autistic—I was not diagnosed until I was 21 and as such, I didn’t receive much-needed support until late on in my degree. One of the main reasons why I was diagnosed later in life is because women and girls tend to present differently than the stereotypical male autistic portrayed in the media. In terms of gender, I did very much feel like I stood out in my undergraduate physics cohort as one of only a few girls, which negatively impacted my confidence and increased my feelings of imposter syndrome.” 

Josie Coltman, Physicist – “A challenge to overcome whilst working in STEM has been being the only female within my team and one of only a few within my sub-function. Although, this has improved slightly in the 12 years I have been working. My main challenge was actually getting into the STEM field, as I was told at secondary school that I would never make it as a physicist and yet here I am years later with an MPhys, PhD and physics job!” 

What’s a challenging topic you wish was discussed more and why? 

Charlie Dobson, Veterinary Surgeon – “I think sexual harassment in the workplace needs to be shouted about. Just because incidents of physical harassment, which were commonplace in previous decades, are less common nowadays, far too many women still feel they must ‘put up’ with comments and ‘jokes’ which are intimidating and undermining. I’d love more men to be emboldened and stand up for their friends and colleagues when they hear inappropriate language (or ‘jokes’) being used, especially when in the absence of women.” 

Sam Islam, Systems Engineer – “LGBTQIA+ issues are a challenging and highly topical subject that needs wider discussion within STEM, however in many ways it is a particularly tricky and sensitive topic to bring to the table as it is a fine balance between campaigning for the encouragement and acceptance of self-expression within the STEM community, and recognising the need for all LGBTQIA+ STEM professionals to have a fair balance between their personal and professional lives.”. 

Josie Coltman, Physicist – “Making work-life balance fair for all, whether you have children or not, so that those who have children do not feel guilty for having to leave early to pick up the kids and attend school events, and those who do not have children do not feel that they cannot have the same flexibility and leave work early to see family and do hobbies. I don’t think this is discussed enough and is quite often only ever talked about from one perspective.” 

Carly Britton, Client Services – “A lack of women in technology is a huge issue! However, if computing was a core subject in schools then both women and men would have an equal opportunity to explore technology and would expose the career opportunities available to them. Understanding the logic behind computer programming will give students the opportunity to develop these skills. We cannot predict the future. But we can provide children with the basics that will give them a head start.” 

What’s a challenge you’re most proud of taking on and why? 

Krystina Pearson-Rampeearee, Flight Systems Engineer – “One of the challenges that I’ve proudly taken on is the misconception of what an engineer should look like. I found that I was constantly having to assure others that I am an engineer, as to their surprise, I didn’t fit into their idea of what an engineer looks like (i.e. a male wearing a hard hat and high vis jacket). It’s important to challenge this stereotype because we need to address the gender balance in engineering and show that engineering is for all!” 

Daisy Shearer, Physics PhD Student – “My PhD! I’m still in the midst of it and I’m proud that I was accepted onto my doctoral programme as well as still being here doing my research, even in the face of the pandemic.” 

Nandini Nagra, Geophysicist – “Whilst working offshore, I noticed the absence of female waste disposal facilities. I brought this up in the health and safety check-in which led to a revision of the waste disposal programme on the vessel and for female specific products to be stocked on board. It was a shock to me that no one had challenged this before, but afterwards, bins were provided to women working on board so no one would have to ask for them again.” 

What advice would you give to others looking to #ChooseToChallenge? 

Gaganpreet Kaur, PhD Student – “My number one advice would be to never make any abrupt decision. One should always make a strategy to achieve a goal. Further, I can’t emphasize enough the importance of mentorship and networking, don’t be shy to ask and reach out to people. There are plenty of amazing people who are just one email away. Further, amplify your web (LinkedIn/Twitter) presence.” 

Nandini Nagra, Geophysicist – “If speaking up in a meeting is daunting, pick an ally in that meeting and discuss anything you thought was discriminatory or gender biased. Then in future meetings you will know you have someone who supports you if you do decide to speak up which can be a huge comfort and you can do like WISE for them.” 

Sam Islam, Systems Engineer – “It is tough to achieve, and it takes a lot of practice, but acting and leading with emotional intelligence and a sense of objectivity (even when others aren’t!) in both the everyday as well as during more complex situations is key to achieving the dialogue and understanding needed to address such challenges.” 

Thank you to all of the women who responded to our questions with their insightful answers, and we hope that you have learnt something or perhaps been exposed to a new viewpoint by reading them. Remember, choosing to challenge and speak up for equality isn’t just for International Women’s Day, it’s something we all need to do (at home and at work) all year round.