Diversity: the recipe for innovation

Two speakers at this week’s Hay Festival highlighted the need for greater diversity in science and other teams to boost innovation.


The ongoing lack of women in science is damaging science innovation and everyone needs to play their part in addressing all the various reasons that girls are put off STEM subjects, particularly maths, physics, engineering and computing, a leading professor told the Hay Festival this week.

Dame Athene Donald, Emeritus Professor of Experimental Physics and Master of Churchill College, was talking about her new book, Not just for the boys, which is aimed at policymakers, parents, teachers and anyone who can make a difference. She said progress had been made to get more women into science, but the numbers of women in areas such as engineering and physics are still very low. She put this down to a complex mix of factors, from stereotyping at a young age and the messages children internalise – such as that girls don’t like maths or that it is too hard – and a lack of positive role models to the bias against women in the education system, including early associations of boys with smartness.

She said it was not just the lack of women in some of the sciences, but the way they are perceived and the biases they encounter. That means that their innovations in science don’t receive the same attention as those from their male counterparts. Dame Athene also catalogued other bias, such as women being more likely to have their academic papers rejected or delayed, women less likely to be cited and gendered approaches to letters of reference in addition to bullying by supervisors and toxic cultures, including harassment.

She recalled being told she did ‘domestic science’ because she studied starch at one point, being taken as part of the secretariat – the idea being that women could not possibly be scientists and having her clothes commented on in a student evaluation. She added that she knew of several women scientists who said that they found the challenges harder in mid-career than in early career as they were seen to be more of a threat to men.

Such bias matters to everyone, said Dame Athene, because a lack of diversity in research teams results in worse science. She gave the example of research into concussion which tends to focus on elite sportsmen. Concussion in women, however, tends to be typically the result of domestic abuse and to have longer lasting effects.

What is needed is a large range of attempts to change the culture through, for instance, a whole school ethos aimed at countering stereotypes, more awareness among parents so they don’t pass on stereotypes to their children [for example, giving the impression that science is not for girls], more male allies and more people speaking up about bullying. “Everyone has something to contribute,” said Dame Athene.

Group dynamics

In another session at the Hay Festival Cambridge University neuroscientist Dr Hannah Critchlow, author of Joined up thinking, spoke about the need to harness our collective intelligence to tackle the big global challenges. She said that research showed some of the key factors needed to do this was diversity of thought in teams. That includes age diversity balancing the greater creativity and lateral thinking of younger people with the experience of older people.

However, the most important predicting factor for successful group dynamics is gender balance, said Dr Critchlow. The higher the rate of women in teams, the better the group will do, she stated. “It is not that men are not good at group work but women from a young age are taught to take turns and listen,” she said, adding that we are doing a disservice to boys by not encouraging them to hone these skills as much. Dr Critchlow also said that IQ levels had fallen during Covid as a result of isolation, but, asked if this meant people work better face to face, she stated that the jury is still out on whether we have learned to adapt better to online working and can work as easily on screen as in person.

*Picture credit: Hay Festival and Sam Hardwick.

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