Starting conversations: Questions of gender

As part of my role as a student ambassador for Edinburgh Napier University’s Connect Network, I’ve spent a bit of time in the foyer at the Merchiston campus trying to get people talking about women in STEM. (Along with co-ambassador, Melanie Robinson, of course.)

Last week, we decided to use our time to ask passers-by three quick-and-easy questions, with the aim of (1) gauging the thoughts of others and (2) engaging in a bit of conversation about women in STEM.

In total, we had 45 willing participants—each rewarded with a small pack of Haribo for their efforts—and whilst the results might not be scientific, they were pretty interesting. Below are our questions, the results, and our feedback on them.

1) Did you know that a woman invented frequency-hopping, the technology behind things such as Bluetooth and Wi-Fi?
Of the 45 participants, only one person had a vague memory of that information, and even then she couldn’t be certain that she knew for sure. Most people were very interested to hear that, not only was it true, but that the woman was a 1940’s Hollywood starlet and that it was created as a signal jammer to deter torpedoes during WWII.

We’d like to think that they’ll remember that fun fact every time they connect to a WiFi hotspot!

Results:
Yes, I knew that! (2%)
No, that’s news to me! (98%)

2) True or False: It is important to breakdown gender stereotypes before children start school.
The responses to this statement was an interesting one. Our first person answered “false” without hesitation, but explained that she was only here for six months (a Chinese student on an exchange) and that her cultural views were different. Others stopped to ask what we meant by gender stereotypes before they went on to answer “true”.

Interestingly, two men noted that they knew the “socially acceptable” answer was “true”, but they didn’t think that was the right answer. They seemed slightly uncomfortable to admit such a thing, but felt that someone needed to. A third said it would depend on which stenotypes were being questioned.

So that’s 41 solid “true” repliers, 3 for “false”, and 1 fence-sitter.

Results:
True (91%)
False (7%)
Undecided (2%)

3) What percent of engineering and technology undergraduates are women
Unsurprisingly, 18 out of the 45 thought this number was 40% or higher (3 of those were 50% or higher). A further 17 believed the number to be in the 20-30% range, with only 10 people guessing less than 20%—and seven of those thought it was in the single digits.

The truth is that only about 12% are women—a fact that seemed to garner surprise by most people, especially those who thought the numbers would be in the 40s.

This question seemed to spark a lot of curiosity, with people wondering why the numbers were so low and what we could do to improve things. (A perfect opportunity to explain that Connect and Interconnect exists was one of many ways to help.)

Results:
More than 50% = 7%
40-50 = 33%
20-30 = 38%
Less than 20% = 22%

All-in-all, it was a learning experience for us as well as our participants. Hopefully, our next attempt at starting conversations will lead to even more interesting results. I’d love to hear your thoughts on these questions and the results.

Connecting the crossings

Last week I visited the construction project site at the new Forth Replacement Crossing with a group of female engineering and built environment students from Edinburgh Napier University. The visit was arranged by the Connect Network for female students studying computing, engineering and the built environment, for which I am a student ambassador.

Whilst the trip was primarily designed for engineering students, my ambassador status got me a seat on the tour—something I was keen to go on because I enjoy learning new things, and I really enjoy having special access to pretty much anything. (It’s one of my many, many quirks.)

But when I got there, I could actually see how computing students would be interested in such a massive civil engineering project, too.

Oh, yes, computers! In addition to the amazing engineering feat of designing and building a bridge that will be 2,633 meters long and 210 meters high (the tallest on-shore structure in Scotland!), it will boast 1,200 sensors to monitor the bridge.

And then there’s the Intelligent Transport System that is being built to help manage traffic as it approaches the bridge. It will be the first time such a system has been used in Scotland and will include things such as variable speed controls and signage as well as metered ramps.

I suppose that I knew there was a lot of computers used in modern engineering projects, but I never really thought about it before.

But then, I’m doing a PhD in the School of Computing and I still struggle to think of myself as anything other than a student of the humanities!

I’m pleased that I went along on the day’s adventure because I think it gave me yet another way of looking at the connections between different disciplines. It would seem that the whole world is one, big, interdisciplinary adventure after another!

And when it comes to the role of women, we’re there making our mark on all of them! (You know, to bring it back to the Connect Network.)