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Ingenious and Enterprising Women

How to tackle inequality in a system that isn’t going to “sort itself out”.

International Women’s Day reminds us that we’re part of a vibrant community. We read inspiring articles and attend celebratory events, sharing experiences, good and bad. This sense of belonging is powerful and positive – but it also reminds us that we can’t be complacent, because there are other days that don’t feel like this.

To achieve a more inclusive research culture we must balance two things – the need to tackle inequality in a system that isn’t going to “sort itself out”, while supporting women who currently work or study in STEM so they can benefit from a more inclusive culture, and continue to act as role models for the next generation.

Ingenious and Enterprising WomenAlthough I’m committed to programmes that develop and support women, I look forward to the day when they are redundant. Until then, we’re working with SFC to build and sustain networks and communities, including the Ingenious and Enterprising Women Scotland programme funded through the Scotland CAN DO initiative. With a new raft of events about to be launched, we hope that anyone who has had their confidence and sense of purpose boosted on International Women’s Day will consider joining us.

The programme’s initial aim was to equip a group of women with the skills and attitudes to thrive in the current environment, but more importantly, build a community which would reduce isolation and provide support. Working in partnership with the University of Glasgow, we developed a proposal with three different approaches but with a shared goal of building strong, trusting networks for women in STEM.

The decision to focus on a programme which would build strong connections came from watching the power of networks we’d seen created by other initiatives. Having worked with Girl Geeks Scotland in 2010 on a residential training programme, which then developed into the Ingenious Women programme at The University of Edinburgh from 2012, we had noted and enjoyed the impact of having a group to turn to with questions, concerns or celebrations.

As soon as we became aware of the CAN DO funding, we knew that there was fantastic potential to set up a network across Scotland based on a similar approach. We planted the seed of a self-sustaining network by emphasising that we’d particularly like to work with women who were interested in broadening the impact of the programme amongst their own communities.

Launched in early 2018, the programme began with a series of networking events based around talks from women in STEM. Topics included life/work balance, being lucky and many career stories. This was followed by three weekends themed around Creativity, Cash and Control and took place from April to June 2018. Childcare enabled women with caring responsibilities to attend, and over the three workshops we worked with 36 women from across Scotland, across a wide range of STEM disciplines, roles, and sectors. 

The third aspect of the Ingenious and Enterprising Women Scotland programme was an ‘adventure’ with entrepreneur in residence Catriona Morrison, a former professional triathlete turned business owner, who discussed strategies for taking forward ideas and being resilient in the face of adversity. These three very different approaches to development attracted a diverse group of women, which gave the network a rich set of experiences and skills to draw on for support and learning.

Although the funded part of the programme finished in 2018, it created such momentum that the group remains in close contact and continues to share opportunities, organise their own events and share their learning with other women.

In response we’re developing a new series of events and are happy to work with like-minded partners, building on our successful links to BCSWomen and the Converge Challenge. Details on these events will be published our website.

So, looking back seven months on from our final funded event, we have sustained a network of women in STEM who are still communicating several times a week to share their perspectives on life in STEM. From the connections formed at these workshops and events they’ve created a space where they can talk honestly about challenges and share successes. They encourage each other to pursue opportunities, provide feedback and guidance, help each other to navigate challenges with shared understanding of the systems they are working in.

It’s too early to see if we’ve addressed our underlying aim of supporting the retention of women in STEM – but the early indications are that we’re off to a good start. Any programme aimed at minorities risks being labelled as another scheme to “fix the women” rather than addressing the system, but we hope that with Ingenious and Enterprising Women Scotland, we have turned this attitude on its head and are instead permeating STEM workplaces with women who are better equipped to accelerate progress, and determined to drive culture change for the better.

The “we” referred to throughout this blog are Dr Elizabeth Adams, University of Glasgow, Janet Wilkinson of Three Times Three Consulting and Dr Jo Young of Electv who worked with  me to design and deliver Ingenious and Enterprising Women Scotland. 

Dr Sara Shinton, Head of Researcher Development, Institute for Academic Development, University of Edinburgh - 8 Mar 2019