March Issue

Published 31/03/2022

Welcome to the March 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 Katie Plant, a member of Close the Data Gap.

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

I am an Associate Professor in Human Factors Engineering in the Transportation Research Group at the University of Southampton. I am on what you would call a ‘balanced pathway’. Therefore, I am responsible for research and teaching. I mainly manage research teams now. This includes the postdocs and technicians that make the research happen. I also supervise several PhD students. On my last count, I had ten PhD students!

In terms of teaching, I run the Human Factors and Engineering module and deliver Human Factors content to other modules in the faculty.  I also sit on the faculty ethics committee board. My role is varied which is also helped by the fact the projects I work on sit within various domains!

What aspects of the job give you the most satisfaction?

I really enjoy teaching the Human Factors and Engineering module to the engineering students. The course teaches the basic principles of Human Factors. Typically, the engineering students come from scientific backgrounds with A levels in Physics, Chemistry and Maths. As a result, they have not had a lot of exposure to some of the more psychological concepts. The module is very focused on user-centred design. The engineering students are not necessarily going to be Human Factor practitioners. To that end, I am trying to embed an understanding of Human Factors, the end-user, and why they need to design for the end-user. Some electronic engineering students have approached me to say they hadn’t previously thought about the end-user when designing a product. I love seeing the student’s mindset shift!

We also do a lecture on automation and Human Factors. The students often have a lot more technical knowledge of automation than I do. Initially, students can be quite dismissive of the role of Human Factors. For instance, they argued that there was no cybersecurity threat to automation. However, the point I was trying to get across was that the end-user wouldn’t necessarily know that. The module really teaches the importance of considering the users’ perceptions and their trust in automated systems. You can see the student’s minds shift when they understand that, and I get quite positive comments from that module. The module itself is quite interactive and very much based on case studies, so I really love teaching that.

With the research side of things, I love naturalistic studies that involve doing research out in the field. In my PhD research, I was winched out of a search and rescue helicopter onto a fishing vessel, which was amazing. I really enjoy those behind the scenes opportunities that you wouldn’t necessarily be able to access in normal life. 

You are also a part of our Close the Data Gap group. Could you tell me what your role is?

In my role as an academic, I add value in terms of the inside knowledge I have on the University organisation and the faculty – be it dynamics or policy – to identify where the work on Close the Data Gap (CtDG) fits in, who to ask, and when is best to ask..

I also sit on the faculty Athena SWAN committee, which is a formal, nationally recognized award given to faculties who uphold the values of equity and equality. The University holds a silver status but the individual faculty holds bronze. The faculty are hoping to put in an application for the silver award level.

Within the committee, we have various working groups. I was heavily involved in the parent and caregiver working group up until I went on maternity leave. At the next quarterly meeting, I’ll be interested to see where that work has gone and whether they are on track for submitting their application before the deadline at the end of the year.

What is your favourite thing about being a part of CtDG and any other organisations you are a member of?

Particularly with this group, it’s the motivated and passionate people involved. I was going to say like-minded, however, I don’t think that’s true. I think the group is quite diverse, and certain mindsets in the group are different to mine. I find that very interesting because it opens my eyes to other ways of thinking. While the group focuses on gender, I think you can learn about other issues from people in the group. I find that refreshing, and it can make me pause and re-think my viewpoint. Also, just working together towards a common cause feels empowering and seeing its traction since the group launched is nice.

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

It has taken me a long time to get my head around equality versus equity. Until recently, I ran a road safety project in low, middle-income countries. In that work, there were a lot of emerging themes on equity versus equality.

I don’t think I understood gender equity until I saw a cartoon showing three people of different heights looking over a fence. In that example, equality was giving everyone the same size box, which meant shorter people still couldn’t see over the fence. For the equitable solution, the size of the boxes was relative to height to make sure everyone could see over the fence.

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In terms of applying that to gender equity, it’s about not having a one size fits all approach. In that sense, we don’t necessarily need males and females to have everything equal. For instance, in the workplace, I struggle to balance my full-time job and role as a primary caregiver for two children. Perhaps giving primary caregivers – who often are females -the same opportunities as males may not be appropriate if that doesn’t fit with the primary caregiver role. I think it is more nuanced and complex than it might sound, and equality may not be appropriate. I still don’t know what equity could look like in the workplace. I also think males can want a different work-life balance as well. For me, it comes down to fairness in relation to need. For example, with lecturing timetables, lecturers with children don’t have sessions scheduled after 5 pm. However, that may not be fair on people who haven’t got children, whether that’s through choice or not. The question is how do you find the most equitable approach?

I read something once that said equity is a treatment that is different but equivalent. I think that’s a good way to think about it. However, knowing how to operationalise equity is complex, and you could still be in danger of confirming stereotypes in the process. I don’t know exactly how gender equity looks, but I know what it means to me.

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

This group has really opened my eyes to life or death decisions made with potentially inappropriate data, such as the crash test dummy statistics and the lack of testing with the female bodies and sizes.

There is also a huge variation in how genders view different things or are represented. When data massively overlook gender, you can produce results that aren’t necessarily usable. Equally, the way the data has been gathered can be an issue. My work in automation aims to represent gendered differences in trust levels and account for these.

Also, I would love to be a more sustainable individual. However, I often feel unsafe when using public transport; that massively impacts my choices. I’m also a classic multi-trip person and will trip-chain when dropping off my children, doing the shopping and going to work. At the moment, cycling would not be suitable when trip-chaining. Those sorts of trips need to be accounted for within the design process.

I think at the most severe-end, gender equity in research is important for safety to limit life and death consequences. On the everyday end, if your work doesn’t account for a truly representative group that captures people’s frustrations and inconveniences, then you won’t produce research that has an impact or purpose.

In what ways do you want to ensure your research is gender equitable?

In my work, coming from a Psychology background, we’ve always been taught about collecting representative samples. Within the transportation domain, I’ve primarily worked in male-dominated fields, such as aviation. There is a tendency for non-standard transport fields to be dominated by males, such as within the maritime domain. I’ve always tried to collect representative samples, and that’s often male-dominated because of the field. As a result, a lack of females within the research sample is considered representative of the population. However, working in this group has made me realise that such an approach could contribute to the vicious cycle of gender imbalance in the population. For instance, the flight deck hasn’t been designed for females, and in turn, more male pilots may be prevalent within the workforce. It’s all very well collecting data with 90% males and 10% females, which would be considered representative. But wouldn’t it be nice to flip that and look at female pilots to see if they have different views that need to be accommodated for. This representation could increase female uptake in that population.

Also, I’ve always encouraged my students to get an even gender split into their data set and analyse that data for gender differences. But since being in the group, I’ve started encouraging students to report if the data set is male-dominated to prevent generalisation, These are small step changes, but important ones nonetheless. 

You are launching the Special Issue on closing the data gap, could you tell us more about this?

The Special Issue came about from a conversation in a CtDG monthly meeting around the opportunity that academic journals and their reviewers have, to close the gender data gap through the feedback given to authors and the acceptance criteria for papers. That made me think it would be good to have a Special Issue on Human Factors in general. The special issue will show how people have attempted to close the data gap across multiple research areas, not just transport. These papers can be commentaries on how difficult closing the data gap is or best practice examples. The special issue launched this month, and it’ll be really interesting to see what sort of submissions we get and how people are operationalising this.

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

I hope that gender equity is given the credit and recognition it deserves. I think it is interesting that in the University we have Associate Deans for research, education, enterprise and all the money-making topics. Yet, we don’t have an associate dean or vice chancellor for EDI. Other Universities, such as Nottingham, have a pro-vice-chancellor for EDI which implies it’s taken seriously. Unfortunately, I think it’s so often the case that people just pay lip service to it. 

I recently submitted two research proposals with post-doc researcher Katie Parnell, which look at gender equity in e-mobility and autonomous transport systems. If either of those gets funding, it will start to show that equity is being taken seriously. I think autonomous transport systems represents a huge opportunity to try to avoid repeating some of the past mistakes within the transport system design. It’s important not to take a blanket copy of the current transport system and apply it with automation. There is now an opportunity for a complete re-design that takes gender differences into account. I hope that studies showing gender differences in transport systems will incorporate these within the design process. Although it is going to take more resources at the beginning, hopefully, people will see the value if it leads to healthier and more sustainable societies. As a result, the resources invested will yield better results in the long run. Sometimes it is hard for people to see that.

I also hope that gender equity becomes more embedded and is the norm for publishing. If guidelines can be embedded within the publication process from the beginning, there will be a foundation that you can’t publish unless you discuss your sample.

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

I think the increasing role of technology in general. I think the role of automation in vehicles has been overhyped in terms of where we’ll see it in our everyday lives. But automation  and other technologies in transport systems in general and how this impacts how we use them, whether we trust the systems will be important.

The role of automation and technology in transport means the role of Human Factors is more important than ever. In terms of gender, it is important to consider how women experience technology differently and the knock-on effect on transport use. This will present both challenges and real opportunities to design usable products and systems.

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?

On a personal level, since being a Mum, I have noticed the unequal role of women more than ever. Life is just not designed for women and female caregivers in the way that it has been designed for men. For instance, my Fitbit doesn’t work when I push the pram, which is annoying because I have to put it in my pocket when I’m deliberately on a pram walk to get my steps up!

Another issue I have experienced is gender stereotyping, specifically, the expectations of females. Last week, I mentioned to a colleague that I was going to a conference in April. They assumed my Mum would look after the children rather than my husband. Also, there was an evening field trip for our Master’s students, and someone presumed I wouldn’t be attending because of my children. These assumptions are frustrating as we are in 2022 and people still assume caregiving is a female responsibility!

I’ve also noticed that healthcare provision is woefully inadequate in maternity services. I do a lot of voluntary work to support women who have had bad birth experiences. I genuinely don’t think that maternity services would be designed as they are now if males were the ones giving birth. Female issues aren’t funded in health care as much as males. I’ve seen the impact of that myself and on people I support. Of course, there is a well-known gender bias in medical research.

From my point of view, being a mum and juggling the full-time job does fall to the female more. That experience has shown me the world is nowhere near equitable or even equal when there’s such a divide between males and females in the caregiving role. That divide means the expectation often falls on the female. My nursery will repeatedly phone me during lecture times even though I’ve told them I am inaccessible during those hours. They will always call me before phoning my husband.

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

Listen to people. If you are in a position of power or a position where you can make changes, then listen to people’s experiences and believe them. If you are male, be aware that what is reported might not impact you. Equally, if you are a female in a position of power or influence, you may not remember the challenges experienced by younger women. I think it’s important to listen when you can influence and believe that what they are saying is the case. If you are the one impacted, where possible, speak up. However, I do think that’s hard, and I think there needs to be collective action from a group. To that end, I think the onus is on the influencers to strive and implement change rather than expect the minority to make the change. I think that advice comes from my advocacy work with maternity services. The listening and believing role are vital, even if it has not impacted you.

Thank you for talking to us Katie, it’s been really interesting to hear from you and we’d love to have you back again in the future.

Next month our blog will feature Sophie Hart. She will be talking about what brought her to close the data gap and how she aims to close the gender data gap in her work.