November ’21 – Rich McIlroy

Published 29/11/2021

Welcome to the November 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 interviews Rich McIlroy, a member of Close the Data Gap.

Rich's Profile Photo

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

I’m a Senior Research Fellow at the University of Southampton within the Transportation Research Group. I mostly do research, but I also lecture on the Human Factors Engineering module that the University runs for undergraduate students and masters students. My research involves transport sustainability and safety, primarily looking at road transport.

What aspects of the job give you the most satisfaction?

I really enjoy collecting data, analysing it, and then finding out something that has not already been found and publishing the results so other people can read about it, which is kind of the fundamental aspect of research. It makes me feel like we’re doing something meaningful. I also like teaching and particularly like it when students come to me and ask questions about something spoken about in class. Its nice to be able to to provide some information that I perhaps didn’t realise I knew! It feels good to pass on information to the next generation of researchers and practitioners.

You are also part of the Close the Data Gap group. Could you tell me what is the best thing about being part of this group?

I think I have benefitted from joining the group, rather than me impacting anything else. Since joining the group, I’ve read more about the data gap. As a middle-class male with all the privileges, I didn’t think much about the data gap and joining the group made me realise I needed to inform myself. Hopefully, I can help other people see the need to inform themselves about things which, although they may not experience, affect the people in the world around them, including many of the people they know.

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

The meaning of equity has changed in my mind as I have learned more about it. I always used to think on an equality level rather than an equity level. If I am being completely open, I did not know what the word equity meant until recently. I have learnt that equity is the understanding that although we may get the same opportunities presented, the chances to take those opportunities are perhaps not the same. Providing exactly the same for everybody is not equitable for people with different backgrounds, genders, and races because they have different needs. One size does not fit all. Previously I might have thought that doing the same for everybody makes sense; however, now I am beginning to realise that it doesn’t. We need to think about…I was going to say special groups, but women aren’t a special group; they are half the planet! Rather, we need to consider the groups in certain domains that haven’t been considered to the same extent as males, especially in research.

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

Transport serves everybody and if we are going to design safe transport systems, we need to make it safe for everybody! I am also interested in promoting greater uptake of active and public transport, and perhaps sharing modes and other mobility models in order to move away from car dependency. To achieve this, we need to think about the impact of gender and the characteristics of roles in society on the use of transport modes. We can’t just think about the average person, but group usages. Gender in that sense is important and we need to focus on what issues women are facing. Generally, women are more likely to favour sustainable options, not just in transport. We should support that by going beyond simply suggesting people take a train. Instead, we should think about the difference between the considerations of males and females when standing in a poorly lit train station at night and how that will affect the transport choices made by those people. Historically, I don’t think these considerations have received the necessary level of attention. Whilst we are on the right path now, we need to put effort into carrying on that path.

Please can you explain how you are ensuring gender equitable research in your work?

In my research, I have used questionnaires to gather respondents’ preferences for different transport mode choices. My research has utilised disaggregation, where we asked respondents what their gender, age and other demographics are. Using this information, we can separate the data and see if there are any differences. In recent years, all my analyses have included gender as a control variable. Now, I must admit, I’ve only collected gender demographics using the male and female categories as the statistical methods I used become more complicated when including more groups. This is not the ideal scenario and more needs to be done to focus on those groups.

On the Mobility as a Service (Maas) project, we are currently planning some focus groups that explore barriers to mode shift away from cars and how to encourage the use of more active and public transport. As part of this, we have thought about hosting three focus groups; one for men with a male investigator, one for women with a female investigator, and one for whoever doesn’t want to be in either a male or female only group. The findings will be used to see if there are any differences in the responses. Previously, it’s been raised that in a mixed group with a male investigator, a female voice may not get heard or somebody may not feel encouraged to voice their opinions. That research has not been conducted yet, but it’s something we are working towards.

On the teaching side of things, we have always given a lecture on ethics and sampling. We can use this forum to teach students about bringing gender equity into their research and how important it is to get a representative sample. There is also an important question about what a representative data sample is. For example, we did some survey work in Bangladesh, where approximately 70% of our data sample was male. That percentage is highly reflective of the on-road reality, with most of the pedestrians and drivers in Dhaka being male. However, that raised the question of whether the sample told us how to design and improve a system that supports all users. Ultimately, I want to know what any user might think about a particular intervention or how they behave when using transport and build a system accordingly, rather than build a system for those already using it. The point is that when conducting research, you need to think about what population you are interested in.

In your role as a lecturer, are you teaching students how to collect gender balanced samples?

Because it’s quite a general lecture given to engineering students, we don’t go into a huge amount of detail. We do teach them about sampling methods, such as convenience and stratified sampling, but we don’t go into much detail on how to do that in practice. That would be a next step and if we expanded teaching in this area or across other departments that would be something I would like to do.

What is your hope for the future within your own research regarding gender equity?

I hope that the samples I collect start to even out in terms of the weighting of male and female respondents. I’d like this to be the case, not just for questionnaires but also for studies using our driving simulator or focus groups. Also, when it comes to policy analysis exercises, most of the policymakers and stakeholders interviewed are males, especially within transport. It would be great to see gender equity not requiring a conscious effort in recruitment and instead be something that transpires naturally.

What do you think the next big thing will be in your field, in terms of an area your field might move towards?

I suppose there are a few different things. In terms of road safety, there is a move towards systems thinking. This thinking exists within the academic domain in the form of the sociotechnical systems theory and complex systems theory. It is also coming up in policy documents, with this idea of a safe system. The purist system thinkers in academia would say that they are not the same thing. I would say that the safe system idea as expressed in policy and the media is a step in the right direction and shows promise.

It would be nice if transport moved towards more prevalent use of active and public transport and away from the private vehicle. I don’t see the private vehicle ever being left behind, and I’m not saying it should either because it serves a purpose for people with different mobility issues. Although, it would be nice if we encouraged people travelling either in cities or travelling on fixed urban journeys to leave their cards behind a bit more often. The optimist in me says that we can!

What is the biggest gender data gap that you’ve seen outside of your working world?

Having a wife who is a nurse and has lots of nursing friends, I am constantly confronted with how heavily dominated that profession is by women, with very few male nurses working within hospitals. I can’t help but be reminded that it’s not just women being excluded from certain things that are encouraged to men, but also vice versa. When I did my psychology degree, there were 120 undergraduates, with 100 of those being women and 20 males. I can’t help but feel that there are issues both ways that society needs to think about in terms of what expectations are prevalent for genders.

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

My advice would be to get informed and get involved in a group with people who are more aware of these things than you are. I’d also say to try and be open to the fact that your way of seeing things is not the only way, and in fact, you can be very blind to other people’s issues.

Thank you so much for talking to us. It’s great that you acknowledged that this is a new area for you, it provides a role model to shows how sensitive topics are not a scary area to be involved in. Let us know in the future how your gender equitable research goes!

If you missed our October blog with Joy Richardson, you can still see it here!

In next months blog, we’ll be hearing from Aeronautics and Astronautics Engineering student Erinn Sturgess. She will be discussing her 4th year project looking at a Virtual Reality bike simulator and how she plans to close the gender data gap in her work.