How to improve STEM workplace culture

Josiah O’Brien from the WISE Young Professionals’ Board looks at things we can all do to create workspaces where everyone feels welcome. 

In the small village of Bramley stands St. James’ Parish, containing, as most churches do, a graveyard. Among the non-descript tombstones lies one with the epitaph ‘A physicist who never lost her humanity’. As inspiring a message today as it was when written in 1968, the words take on added substance when one realises the personal history of the compassionate scientist who rests here. 

This is the grave of Lise Meitner, an Austrian-Swedish physicist born in 1878, whose life of incredible research was intertwined with discrimination. Lise was responsible for the discovery of nuclear fission alongside a male colleague, but was excluded in the Nobel prize for the discovery. She worked as a researcher at the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Institute but was considered a ‘guest’ with no salary on account of her gender. She also discovered the Auger effect in 1922, subsequently named after Pierre Auger who discovered it a year after her publication. Ninety-eight years later, there are still arguments for and against renaming this process to reflect the initial (female) discoverer. 

Meitner’s story is not an uncommon one for women who have worked in scientific fields over the  centuries. Even today, there is still significant underrepresentation of women within STEM subjects, and this chasm widens as we reach upper-management and boardroom positions. It can be a challenge to get women into these careers, but arguably, their retention is an even greater one (particularly after giving birth). Gender roles and stereotypes have been entrenched in our societies through hundreds of years of discrimination, misguided science, vocabulary (the word hysterical derives from the Greek word for uterus, and used to be a diagnosable condition that only affected women), the duality of our language at work, and a host of other factors. These barriers are in the process of being broken, but there is still a long way to go to achieve balance throughout all facets of STEM. 

However, one thing we can all directly influence right now is our office culture. This is one of the most influential aspects when it comes to generating a truly inclusive workplace and is a reason many minorities leave their STEM fields. It’s a seemingly daunting task trying to bring about change at this level, but if everyone is considerate and puts in a little effort, things can improve. Here are things we can all do to create workspaces where everyone feels welcome: 

  • Inclusive language and examples – This really should go without saying, but many organisations still need to address this, and at all levels. Talking hypotheticals in the boardroom? Say ‘they’ instead of ‘he’. Making a job advert for a position? Gender decode it before publishing. Producing promotional materials for training or hiring? Make sure to include pictures/videos of a diverse group of your employees. 
  • Use your privilege – Some people’s voices are overlooked or even ignored when discussing technical issues or in meetings. To address this, direct conversation back to them and normalise their input. “As [name] just said, a good option is…”, when someone’s opinion is downplayed; “What do you think [name]? You have a lot of knowledge in this area.”, when someone’s expertise aren’t utilised; “as [name] just mentioned”, when someone’s idea is ignored then reiterated by another colleague; “Sorry [name] you were interrupted, what were you saying?”, when someone is talked over. It takes almost no effort but has a significant impact on making someone feel accepted. 
  • Address behaviour – This can be challenging, especially coming from someone superior, but often problematic comments can come from a lack of understanding rather than being deliberately aggressive. If you feel comfortable, explain why someone’s behaviour is offensive or damaging and ask them to stop (in person or over email). A simple “That’s not on” is enough to make someone question their actions, and usually they’ll realise that what they’ve done isn’t acceptable. 
  • Share your story – We’ve seen how far reaching the positive effects of speaking out can be, but it also helps humanise the issues to people with little knowledge of them. Knowing that so many of my close friends and colleagues shared collective experiences of harassment and discrimination opened my eyes to how ubiquitous these problems are, even in seemingly progressive workspaces. Sometimes it can be hard to properly empathise with an issue if our only experience of it is through headlines and statistics, but having people I know share their stories was invaluable in raising my awareness of inequity. 
  • Show an interest – All of the events and talks about discrimination I have been to seem to have the same thing in common: the majority of the audience are made up of the minority discussing the issue. Talks on women in STEM are overwhelmingly made up of female attendees, events about people with disabilities in the workplace are almost exclusively visited by other people with disabilities. Workplace events are for everyone, so attend them! Just because you’re not a woman, doesn’t mean you can’t go to the ‘Women in STEM’ talk. Hopefully, you see the irony if your response is that you’d feel uncomfortable or out of place. Show up, show an interest, and help normalise the conversation. 

These are a few things that can raise the inclusion of everyone in the workplace and continue to help make progress in representation. In 1974, Jocelyn Bell Burnell was not recognised in the Nobel prize for her discovery of Pulsars. Instead, the award went to her (male) supervisor. Thankfully, over time society has changed its outdated views on female scientists, and Dr. Jocelyn is now one of the most decorated Physicists of modern times. She has donated millions of pounds from her various research prizes to “fund women, under-represented ethnic minorities, and refugee students to become physics researchers”. 

People are not their gender, age, disability, sexual orientation, ethnicity, religion, or level of education. If we’re aware of these inequality issues and keep an open dialogue about them, working collectively to address them, we can organically achieve a point where we become ‘humans in STEM’. No one will be singled out, be it positively or negatively, for their differences.