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, Kirsten Madeira-Revell interviewed PhD student and Close the Data Gap member, Siobhan Merriman.
What is your role, and what career path are you currently following?
I’m currently in the last year of my Human Factors PhD, and I’m investigating the training implications for drivers of automated vehicles, also referred to as self-driving or autonomous vehicles. This work has involved understanding what training drivers will require to operate these vehicles safely on the road and then developing and evaluating a couple of training programs to try and satisfy those needs. With regards to my future career path, I’m not really too sure. I definitely want to stay in Human Factors, but I don’t know whether that will be within academia or industry.
What aspects of your PhD gives you the most satisfaction?
The studies can take a long time to plan and prepare for, especially if they involve using new technology or machinery that you might not have used before. For example, I completed my last study a couple of months ago, which used the driving simulator. I had to learn how to use the software, plan what I wanted to test and create and pilot scenarios. This whole process involved a lot of trial and error before I could collect my data. This took me a long time, especially when I wasn’t sure what the problems were, and, on top of that, I had to run my experiment during COVID. I was always afraid that I wasn’t going to be able to get enough participants or find any interesting results. I was also trying to recruit participants to achieve an equal gender split and have a sample with a broad range of ages to make sure the data sample was representative of people who might actually be using these vehicles. When I completed the study, I looked back and saw that I did manage to get enough participants, I did manage to collect the data I needed, and I did find interesting results. It was very rewarding and satisfying to know I had done this work.
You are also a part of our Close the Data Gap group. Could you tell me what your role is within this group and any other gender-equitable groups?
My main role since the start of CtDG has been within the education mini-group. I worked with another member (Daniel Fay) of CtDG to create content for some PhD training. My motivation behind this was that I had never received any gender equity training during my education. I wanted to try and make PhD students aware of what gender equity is, why it is essential, and how it can be addressed so that they can make the world a better place, whether that is through the research they conduct or the job that they will go into. I wanted to give other PhD students the training I never received and what I would have liked to have had during my education.
I also had the opportunity to present the first ever PhD training session last year. I found it quite daunting because I do not really enjoy public speaking, but I also found it rewarding, especially as the discussions and positive feedback we received showed that people were listening and taking on board the information.
I’ve also just started a research position on a project alongside Katie Plant and Katie Parnell, who are both members of CtDG. This project involves running focus groups and online surveys to understand the issues around gender equitable micro-mobility, such as E-scooters and E-bikes. I’m really excited to see how this project unfolds because we are using a gendered lens to research transport modes that are up-and-coming.
What is your favourite thing about being a part of CtDG and any other organisations you are a member of?
What I like about the group is it is very proactive. We are not just pointing out existing gender equity issues and saying “this is wrong”; we are also trying to overcome the problems. The whole group is full of diverse people from different backgrounds, ages, and stages in their careers. For example, we have some associate professors, research technicians, and PhD students. I have really enjoyed working with people that I wouldn’t have had the chance to work with if I hadn’t joined the group, especially as a PhD involves a lot of independent work. I’ve also enjoyed hearing about their experiences and getting lots of helpful advice that I can apply to my work to make it more gender equitable. The wider experiences we discuss that aren’t work-based also point out problems in my life outside of work that I can try and fix.
To you, what is gender equity, what does it really entail, from your perspective?
The first word that springs to mind is fairness – males and females should be treated fairly according to their needs. That doesn’t necessarily mean that they should be treated the same. Instead, they can be treated differently, but that treatment is considered equal. When I was creating the PhD training, I found many examples of gender inequity, such as in the health care domain where males and females both wore Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) that were exactly the same size. Regarding gender equity, the fair treatment here would be to ensure that females get smaller PPE so that it fits them properly and protects them in the same way that a male receives protection with the current PPE.
Why do you believe gender equity is so important within the research process?
I think research forms the basis of all decision-making in society. If we want to create a better and safer world for everyone, we need to ensure that research is done correctly and considers the differences that exist in society so that everyone benefits, not just the average white male. If you think about it, females make up approximately 50% of the world population, so we need to make sure that research is gender equitable so that any gender differences can be identified and accommodated for. Whilst creating the PhD training material, I came across many gender equity issues. These ranged from less severe examples such as mobile phones not fitting into female’s hands or in their pockets to much more life-threatening examples such as crash tests only being conducted with male dummies. Another example is PPE not fitting female nurses, despite the majority of nurses being female. As research forms the basis of most decisions, these examples show why gender equity must be accounted for in research practice.
In what have you ensured your research is gender equitable?
In the PhD training, we finish by providing students with some guidelines that they can use to ensure their research is gender equitable. Where possible, I have tried to use those guidelines in my own PhD work to make sure that I practice what I preach. For example in all the studies that I conducted, I collected gender demographic information, piloted the study on males and females to see whether there were any gender differences, and identified how the gender differences could be accommodated for during data collection. When I collected my data, I created flexible time slots to give both males and females an equal opportunity to attend. For example, sometimes I opened the simulator lab at 8am so that the participants could take part in the experiment and complete it around their workday. I also had opened study slots over lunchtime.
I have been very clear about the gender split in my write-up. For example, I put gender demographic information as the first column in my demographic table to make it clear that, where possible, I have tried to recruit an equal number of males and females. For the simulator experiment, I know that females tend to suffer more from simulator sickness, so I told participants before they signed up about this risk and had water on standby. I also gave participants the opportunity to complete a practice drive before the actual experiment to get them used to the simulator. If they suffered from simulator sickness, they could leave before starting the study. I also had a list of interested participants just in case there were dropouts so that I could bring more people in their place.
What do you hope for the future in your field regarding gender equity?
I think the most important thing for the future is changing people’s mindset and behaviour towards gender equity. Instead of researchers having to be told to consider gender equity through training programmes or reviewer comments, it should become an automatic process. Researchers should automatically consider gender equity at every stage of the research process, from proposal to publication, rather than having to be told retrospectively. It sounds weird, but the end goal would be for our group to become redundant because if everyone conducts gender equitable research, then we wouldn’t need our group to show these issues and argue for people to conduct gender equitable research.
What do you think will be the next big thing in your field?
Whilst I do think there has been huge advances in our understanding of vehicle automation, one thing my PhD has taught me is that there is still a long way to go before we can introduce these vehicles safely on our road. Until we reach the possibility of these vehicles being able to drive autonomously in all road conditions and where the driver won’t have to do anything, the human is still going play an integral part in operating these vehicles safely on the road because they are sharing the driving tasks with the automation. The interactions between the human and the automation become particularly important as this is where most problems occur. As I mentioned before, as 50% of the population are female, we need to understand how gender influences these interactions so that we can introduce these vehicles safely on the road and ensure everyone can use them safely.
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 first example comes from cricket. I have played cricket for around 14 years and although there have been big strides in making the sport more gender equitable, we still have a long way to go. When I first started playing, I remember we had to buy all our own equipment, including helmets, gloves and pads. However, each item had a boy’s clothing label on it. Although you can now buy female equipment, many issues still remain. For example, my team changed our team clothing at the start last season. Despite being a ladies team, we were asked to select our clothing size from an adult male sizing chart, and we received no option to pick a female size. As most of our team are small in figure, or are teenagers, you can imagine that even the smallest adult male size was too big on most of us. Luckily my sister and I asked if we could pick youth sizes, but many other girls didn’t and had to sew all their clothing to make it fit them better. I always go back to the point of, if you are trying to get more females into a male-dominated sport – such as cricket – you need to make females feel welcome, and I saw this as a step backwards because we had to pick from a male sizing chart which didn’t make us feel welcome at all. Cricket is also a dangerous sport where you can get injured very easily, so it is critical that your clothing and equipment fits you well.
As a second example, in the engineering department, I have noticed that although there are female staff, many people who work there are males, and there isn’t much thought on female’s needs. For example, when you go into the toilet, no sanitary products are available. However, if we want to create a sense of belonging and encourage more females to work in male-dominated departments, we need to make them feel welcome, and providing basic needs like sanitary products is one easy way to do this.
Thank you so much Siobhan, it has been fantastic listening to you. Hopefully, when you have done more work on your E-scooters project we can have you back to hear more about it!