“If we want to change the system, we need some fresh thinking” says Dr. Anne Miller, joint founder of RisingWISE, an initiative aimed at women in STEM at the universities of Oxford and Cambridge. The programme aims to combat some of the disparities between men and women in achieving leadership roles and pursuing entrepreneurship opportunities in this sector.
According to the ONS Labour Force Survey, in 2018 only 22% of the STEM workforce were female. The higher up the ladder you go, the worse the statistics look for female representation. This is by no means due to ability. In previous entrepreneurship programmes that Miller ran she realised that women, in particular, were not exploring opportunities as they didn’t believe they had “permission” to do so in research-led universities, and lacked the role models to legitimise their visions. This led Miller and her colleague Daisy Hung to band together with Dr. Shima Barakat of Cambridge and develop a programme to help women to self-actualise and improve talents that are often already present.
One example of an area where women could benefit from practice is negotiation. A growing body of research suggests that negotiation, whether internal salary negotiation or negotiating business deals, is currently more successfully conducted by men. The research also points to the fact that this is due to constraining social forces at play. Amanatullah and Morris’ Paper on “Negotiating Gender Roles”, has found that women may act less assertively in negotiations for fear of upsetting relationships, and the Harvard Business Review conducted a project which showed that, although women may ask for a raise as often as men, this is rejected far more often. Therefore, the programme aims to further developing these vital skills and, aided by industry professionals, create an environment where women are free to discover, put into practice and enhance these talents. The target is to legitimise the existence of female entrepreneurs in STEM and, give women the opportunity to work with other like-minded individuals. Miller explains that “we are not teaching women to be like men, that is not the point of this programme. What we are doing is facilitating women to flourish as themselves in a world full of unconscious male bias, and because our participants are from a wide range of ethnicities and cultures, we are also learning how to embrace and support greater inclusion and diversity.”
What makes RisingWISE work so well is the people involved. Miller explained that the partnership between age–old rivals Oxford and Cambridge is a genuine partnership, built on mutual trust and respect. The programme is structured so that there is a connection with industry, something that has always been a priority of Miller’s. “Bringing in industry professionals brings in fresh-thinking and allows us to consider the lessons we can draw from how industry operates.” Moreover, the Industry Partners have not been asked to give money but are asked to send female volunteers, willing to give up their time to help further the cause. This creates a unique environment where women have the opportunity to split off into smaller groups and discuss and receive advice from professionals who have experienced the realities of the sector. The use of volunteers ensures that anyone involved is genuinely passionate about encouraging success for women in STEM and that any funding received by RisingWISE goes as far as possible. It is clear these women have created a strong community and during the Covid-19 pandemic, have started up a programme called GroWISE, continuing to support one another throughout.
Oxford is a brilliant place for any new entrepreneurs or start–ups as the resources are widespread and varied. Miller recommends looking at Enterprising Oxford as a fantastic starting point (Leah Thompson who runs it was another essential founding partner of the programme) and, if the project is a University spin-out, contacting Oxford University Innovation. For start-ups, the Oxford Foundry is a great organisation to look into and for social enterprises, the Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship can really make a difference. RisingWISE itself has benefitted from various grants from the EPSRC– IAA Account, secured Industry sponsorship and received funding from HEIF (Higher Education Innovation Funding.) Not only does this show that their work is being recognised but it also allows the programme to continue to benefit more women.
Entrepreneurship comes in many different forms. “Originally I thought entrepreneurship was about starting something new and doing whatever it takes to make it work” says Miller. However, now she believes that, although this is a key element, the real core of entrepreneurship is about wanting to make a difference. The entrepreneurs that are most successful are those who want to see change occur and are able to think practically about the most effective way to problem-solve. For RisingWISE, it is all about impacting real women’s lives and taking active steps towards changing the system.