April ’23 Kirsten Madeira-Revell

Published 16/04/2023

Welcome to the June issue of the Close the Data Gap blog. Each month, we interview either a member of our group or a guest speaker about their passion for gender equity and what they are doing to close the data gap in their corner of the world. This month, Sophie Hart interviewed Gender Equity advocate and Close the Data Gap member, Kirsten Madeira-Revell.

What is your role, and what career path are you currently following?    

After founding the Close the Data Gap group following over a decade working in Human Factors Engineering, I decided that I would only work on research that was gender equitable. Although I was doing inclusive research, I realised that what makes research gender equity was more interesting to me than the core research topic. In 2021 I made the major decision to shift careers and follow my lifelong ambition to be an visual artist. This allows me to focus on equity and other passions where a broader audience can engage in a more immediate way. I occasionally do academic research through Close-the-Data-Gap and individually on a voluntary basis – but only when the aim of the research is to create a more equitable world. I’m excited this year as I will be able to combine both art and research to promote the need for gender equity. Close the Data Gap have won some funding from the Web Science Institute at the University of Southampton, to hold a community art exhibition this summer 2023. Myself, Rachel Haywood, Joy Richardson, Selin Zileli and Kiome Pope will not only be creating our own artworks, but also be run community workshops to create both IRL and virtual artworks inspired by the theme of “gender, perceived safety, and mobility”.

What aspects of your current work give you the most satisfaction?

I was thinking about this and I realised that there are lots of similarities between the artistic and research process; you have an idea or inspiration, you set up a line of enquiry, you do some research and experimentation like a pilot study or a prototype and then you evaluate and refine that idea. So, I’ve found a lot of parallels between both domains that satisfy my curiosity and desire to experiment. What I find really exciting is the immediacy of art. When undertaking research, there is a long period from start to finish to get an output that communicates your message. With art, whilst it can take a long time, it can also be incredibly quick and simple. Art connects to people in a very different way to academic journal papers! People can get drawn in and engaged purely from the visuals and that can start conversations. Whether or not they see the same thing as what you intended in your work, you get this connection and meeting of perspectives which I find exciting and enlightening.

What aspects of your current work give you the most satisfaction?

I was thinking about this and I realised that there are lots of similarities between the artistic and research process; you have an idea or inspiration, you set up a line of enquiry, you do some research and experimentation like a pilot study or a prototype and then you evaluate and refine that idea. So, I’ve found a lot of parallels between both domains that satisfy my curiosity and desire to experiment. What I find really exciting is the immediacy of art. When undertaking research, there is a long period from start to finish to get an output that communicates your message. With art, whilst it can take a long time, it can also be incredibly quick and simple. Art connects to people in a very different way to academic journal papers! People can get drawn in and engaged purely from the visuals and that can start conversations. Whether or not they see the same thing as what you intended in your work, you get this connection and meeting of perspectives which I find exciting and enlightening.

What is your role within Close the Data Gap?

I founded the group a couple of years ago in 2020 after a few of us had read the book “Invisible Women” by Caroline Criado-Perez. I was really pleased to get the support from people who co-founded the group with me and were really committed to the movement. I’m now basically a jack of all trades; I chair the meetings, write up the meeting notes, support the mini-groups, collaborate on papers, help to update the website and post on social media, provide presentations to outside agencies, organise admin, connect with external supporters, review work, create new initiatives and manage the dynamics in the group. There is quite a lot that goes into running and supporting a group!  After having to take a step back last June for a few months when my mum was ill, I realised that for the group to grow it needs to be less dependent on me. This year, it is all about getting the Close the Data Gap members really empowered so that the group can have greater reach and longevity beyond my personal time commitments.

What is your favourite thing about being a part of Close the Data Gap?

The best bit is the camaraderie and working with like minded people who want to make a difference in the world. The other bit I enjoy is that we get to choose the culture. When Close the Data Gap first started, we spent two months working on the culture of the group so that it was a really inclusive, safe, positive and non-shaming environment. That’s something that’s quite hard to establish in your own work environments, but within a group like this we could do it.

To you, what is gender equity, what does it really entail, from your perspective?

From my perspective, its about creating the conditions that allows everyone, regardless of their gender, to reach their full potential. It is about giving everyone the best chance to lead a fulfilling life and make a unique contribution to the world and not putting limits and constraints on people.

Why do you believe gender equity is so important within the research process?

Research is used to make decisions and policies within companies and government. Academic research is seen as uncovering truth and fact.  When there is an invisible bias in the entire research system, then all the decisions that come from that will be equally biased and often unacknowledged. Journal papers particularly have real, long-lasting credibility and if we don’t start making changes in how we look at historical data collection in previous papers and be diligent about how we communicate in our own publications, then it will be another century before real change in society. After reading Invisible Women, it drove home how anyone working in research has a lot of power and influence to change the world.

In what ways have you ensured your work is gender equitable?

It’s interesting because even within the arts world, there is a lot of bias in gender. Even to the point that if a women signs their work on the front, it will be worth less. Because of this, women are encouraged not to sign their work because it will instantly reduce the monetary value of their work. At the moment, there is a massive problem in all male driven societies like the UK and the US, it isn’t just limited to research. In order to practice gender equity in my daily artistic work, I would be very careful in the way I reference any figurative things I’m working on in terms of their gender. For example, if I’ve drawn a character with long hair, I would be careful not to use pronouns like ‘she’ because that is very limiting. Rather than state things, I leave them open for interpretation.

Within any research collaborations, I am an advocate for using a gendered lens in every aspect of the process – from funding applications to publications. If I am reviewing journal papers, I will be asking those questions about data sources, data analysis and generalisability. When supervising PhD students, I will get them to question and address the gender elements in their work. I think gender equitable practice can be embedded in any job profession, it isn’t just limited to research.

What do you hope for the future in your field regarding gender equity?

Within the domain of Human Factors research, the difficulty is that the field emerged from male dominated industry. There is an awful lot of historical focus on the default male because these industries are still male dominated. This leads to a ‘chicken and egg’ problem, since focusing on an existing male biased workforce will perpetuate environments that exclude women. This in turn will mean the domain will continue to lack the insights a different gender could bring from within the domain. My hope would be that all research, rather than being based on the existing status quo, is instead focused on a model of a future equitable society which embraces diversity and is inclusive by default. I believe this is the only way to tackle the major barriers to equity in our thinking and practice.

In terms of the art world – there is much to be done on creating change in the similarly inequitable institutions that exist. There has recently been a push for more culturally diverse representation in the art world – but when it comes to both the highest paid living visual artists, and artistic representation in major galleries and museums, there is still a tremendous male bias. The way gender is depicted in historical art is biased by very traditional ideals. These ‘masters’ are of their time when systematic barriers to women becoming a professional artist were significant. Looking at the work of Artemisia Gentileschi in the 17th Century and Tracey Emin today, the themes show insights and depict experiences that are absent the canon of art history. My hope is that in the future a more diverse range of themes and types of art practice qualify as ‘good art’ and art education and theory shifts to enable this. I would also like to see barriers to entry tackled with enthusiasm for groups under-represented in the art world, so we bask in the self-expression of all voices.

What do you think will be the next big thing in your field?

This is really interesting, as the thing that jumped out for me is Artificial Intelligence (AI) which is becoming a more important topic, both in research and art. There is a massive move to collaborating or producing art with AI. Similarly with research, AI is an amazing focus within academic work that’s happening in engineering. However, the application of AI in both settings have the same issue in so far that the AI is often driven off historical sources of data which will have inherent biases. But, different people working in the field have different approaches. Some AI art applications prevent unethical requests which is an interesting way forward. In research, the quality of outputs for research questions through AI is astounding, given the right prompts. Used ethically it could really advance our insights and capabilities. I’m really pro seeing what happens but I also recognise that there needs to be an understanding and transparency in how you are using the AI, and what the AI references in its outputs. For all of society, AI is the next big thing..  

Since the Close the Data Gap group first began 2 years ago, what progress do you think has been made towards achieving a gender-equitable world?

When we started the group, gender equity seemed like a really niche topic, to the point that we were quite nervous about how we use terminology. The group originally had the word ‘women’ in the title rather than gender and we thought that was too niche so chose gender to be more inclusive. Now, considering gender in itself common place. It has got to the point in research where people are now asked about gender equity in their job applications and review process and there is much more opportunity for anyone to raise concerns about gender equitable considerations in roles. It has also reached a stage where gender equity is not a topic that needs to be raised in terms of awareness. At the start of the group, it was all about pushing the importance of gender equity, and now it has really moved to looking at how we deal with it practically in our research and lives. The openness of journals to publish work with a gender lens is also far better than it was in the past. I think there has been big shifts and we need to keep up that momentum!

Outside of your work role, could you think of anything that is a big gender data gap issue that you face in your day-to-day life?

My biggest one is really to do with gender roles. There are massive differences in expectations between the non-paid work that women do compared to men. Both men and women do non-paid work, which isn’t recognised. Particularly for women with children, there is a massive societal expectation about what is appropriate to spend your time on, how much time you should be spending with your children and what chores you should be doing. It is a battle in two ways; one to get equity in who covers those tasks within the household, but also one to get people in general to understand the disparity which is still present. One journal paper collaboration I worked on looked at gender roles during the COVID pandemic using Operational Event Sequence Diagrams. I used an example of me own household with my very gender equitable husband. The literature search and domestic examples illustrated how from the nature of his work compared to mine as a researcher, more burden was placed on myself and other women in similar dynamics effecting career aspirations, earning potential and social judgement. I believe women who have had children are particularly impacted as existing sexism is compounded by gender role expectations as a parent. Whilst you can intellectualise and negoiate different choices, there is always that background sense of “I ought to be like this, therefore I have to justify why I am doing that”. That’s something that’s been really present for me since having children.

Do you have any advice for anyone who wants to make a difference to gender equity in their corner of the world?

I would say try to speak up and join a group or start a group with like minded people where your interest in equity is normalised. That just gives you practice and helps hone your position. It also introduces you to new ideas and ways of thinking that can help make you more confident when your trying to speak up in situations where people understand less about the issues. I would also say look at where you have control and influence in your own life, even if that’s talking to a friend or family member. Rather than preach about injustice, evaluate yourself first, find what small things you can do, and then you can engage with people from a position of experience. With a first-hand understanding of what is possible and what the challenges are. I think that will help you come across with greater empathy is likely to have more influence. I’ve got three boys, and I always make a point to raise what I see and be open to listen to the very different perspectives and experiences of men and women. I think just having those conversations makes all the difference.

Thank you so much Kirsten, it was really interesting to hear about your gender equitable research practice both in your research and in your work as a visual artist. It would be great to have you back in the future to hear more about how you are getting on!