Diversity leads to impact: what we learned from running an inclusive and accessible physics webinar series

Contributed by the following authors (in alphabetical order): Dr Claudia Antolini, Dr Clara Barker, Dr Kathryn Boast, Dr Izzy Jayasinghe, Dr Caroline Müllenbroich, Dr Clara Nellist
Published in Physics
Diversity leads to impact: what we learned from running an inclusive and accessible physics webinar series
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Why we launched a webinar series

2020 has seen an explosion of physics webinars. Many of these came about out of necessity to adapt established seminar series and conferences to suit the restrictions around the COVID-19 pandemic. Others were the realisation of an opportunity to bring together researchers and audiences that would typically be restricted by geographic separation or time commitments.

In this time, it soon became apparent to a number of us in the advocacy group TIGER in STEMM that women, people of colour, people who are LGBTQ+ and people who have disabilities were under-represented in online physics panels and webinars, and that speakers from marginalized demographics and identities were not always afforded the visibility and courtesy that is usually expected in the field. Moreover, considerations for adequate accessibility to the broadcast were often overlooked.

Banner for the TIGER in STEMM 2020 summer webinar series
Banner for the TIGER in STEMM 2020 summer webinar series

The six of us, women with a connection to the UK physics landscape from different areas of physics, diverse backgrounds, and identities, were determined to successfully demonstrate a different approach to online physics webinars. Recognising the need to place the same importance on diversity, inclusion and accessibility as on the physics that would be showcased, we set out to create a series of talks that break the mould and establish a precedent of providing an equitable platform for communicating science to academic peers and the general public alike. Within four weeks of initially coming together, we launched the inaugural TIGER in STEMM summer webinar series in physics on the 6th of August 2020. We wanted to celebrate intersectional and marginalised physicists (see Figure 1) and offer them centre stage to talk about their research. Our vision was to demonstrate that incorporating diversity, inclusion and accessibility compromised neither the impact nor the quality of the scientific discussion. More than that, we strived to prove that by placing these values and principles at the core of our enterprise, scientific discussion and dissemination would be enhanced and the impact of this style of communicating science would be amplified.

What we (and you) can learn

Diversity leads to impact. 

From an event which ran as a brief and self-contained series of webinars, the learnings were rich. With a total audience nearing 1000 people over the duration of the 5 event series, it was clear that prioritising diversity on an equal footing as achievements of the speakers enhanced the engagement with the event. There were no compromises made on the depth of the science presented on this platform, which is evidenced by the recordings of the lectures which are still publicly available for viewing.

A support network is key. 

A series such as this was only possible with the unwavering support of TIGER in STEMM, particularly through endorsement of the conviction that diversity can only enrich science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and medicine (STEMM) fields. At a time when online physics conferences and workshops heavily feature speaker line-ups and panels dominated by white men, stepping up to demonstrate impact through a contrasting set of objectives required strength and every bit of support that the six of us could get. Also, the practical support of the group, for example taking advantage of the substantial follower count of the TIGER’s Twitter account and amplification of that advertisement by group members, was fundamental to the success of the physics webinar series.

Accessibility is more difficult but not impossible without a budget.

The plan to organise a webinar series came together over a noticeably short period of time and we had no budget. This came with its own set of limitations. TIGER in STEMM do not hold funds so we had to rely on freely available resources. Firstly, we struggled to find free software support for captioning the presentations and Q&A sessions during the webinars. We found that the live subtitles of Microsoft PowerPoint worked best during the live broadcast, however this was subject to the version of software each presenter was using. Irregular captioning was in fact the single most frequent criticism that we received on our approach. Incorporating either live captioning via a scientific captioning service or sign language interpretation would have added a considerable amount of value and accessibility.

Timing and frequency require careful consideration.

The decision to schedule the series for consecutive weeks in August and early September when most university academics, school teachers and students are on vacation may have amplified the webinar fatigue among our audience. While it could be due to the unique amount of stress that 2020 has generated, we acknowledge that this was particularly evident from the limited survey feedback that we received after the conclusion of the series. So, timing should be considered as a factor for accessibility and engagement.

Diversity attracts diversity.

Webinars and platforms that promote and safeguard diversity and equity are a powerful medium to attract a diverse audience. As clearly shown from our feedback survey, this positive feedback effect yielded an even greater representation of minoritised people in our audience than is seen in the general UK population.

Our approach

We hosted eight early career speakers (postgraduate to principal investigator level) from the full spectrum of physics including quantum and particle physics, astronomy and planetary geophysics, biophysics and material physics. We invited speakers from and of different ethnicities, sexualities, gender identities and speakers with disabilities to present their latest, mostly unpublished research and innovation. Additionally, the presenters were invited, but not required, to share their experiences and expertise in the areas of diversity and inclusion in their respective disciplines. Over five weeks, we broadcast the webinars live via the TIGER in STEMM YouTube channel to an audience ranging from secondary school students to university academics. To chair the proceedings and support the speakers at each session we invited prominent physicists who themselves represented marginalised groups within the UK’s physics community. We used chat moderation and clear signposting to the expected code of conduct to achieve a mutually supportive space for multidisciplinary conversation where everybody, regardless of their background, was invited to be represented and felt free to ask questions.

Figure 1: A visualisation of different axes of marginalisation. We sought to provide a platform for physicists from marginalised backgrounds, identities and demographics, often excluded or overlooked in physics webinars and conferences that pander to and showcase the privileged. Intersectionality, as first coined by Kimberlé Creshaw to describe the intersection of race and gender in Black women, refers to the interconnected and overlapping nature of all factors that apply to an individual in combination rather than considering each factor in isolation, e.g. being a Black woman, disabled foreigner or LGBTQ+ Muslim. Intersectionality provides a framework to understand how different aspects of an individual’s identity combine to create different modes of discrimination or privilege. Please note that this figure is mostly based on the experience in the UK and is not intended to be comprehensive.

Conversations in the months leading up to this series highlighting the lack of recognition of the contributions of women, and particularly Black women to physics, led us to the decision to dedicate the webinar series to the late Canadian-born Black American geophysicist, Claudia Alexander. We used the TIGER in STEMM Twitter account and our supporter email list to announce and promote the webinars presented by each speaker. Events were free for anybody to attend and participate. However, we encouraged attendees to donate to the London-based charity Generating Genius which supports underprivileged students from Black and ethnic minority backgrounds to gain access to higher education in STEM disciplines. We used our platform to highlight the role that grassroots organisations such as this charity play in ensuring a diverse and more robust future for physics in the UK – and that talking about diversity in physics is as important as physics itself.

How it went

A live audience of over 450 attendees across the five sessions were treated to eight world-class public lectures. The availability of the webinars for playback on YouTube attracted a further 500+ unique viewers so far. With topics ranging from the spectral properties of novel chiral materials to refining the standard model of particle physics, we brought some of the latest physics research to a broad audience. The speakers’ observations on diversity and inclusion in physics also sparked rich discussions on some of the key issues in physics including workplace culture and challenges faced by physicists working in universities and in industry.

The post-event feedback survey filled out by attendees confirmed that the audience found our speakers engaging (>92% of the 37 respondents giving a rating of 4/5 or 5/5) and that the content and language were accessible (>94% giving a rating of 4/5 or 5/5). We also found evidence that these events were particularly well attended by viewers from marginalised groups. For example, 27% of the respondents confirmed identifying within the LGBTQIA+ umbrella while around 18% identified as either Black, being of mixed ethnicities, or other ethnic minorities. These marginalised groups make up much smaller proportions in the UK population and represent even smaller minorities among physicists. This fact affirmed our case that webinars and platforms that promote and safeguard diversity and equity are a powerful medium to attract a diverse audience. They inspire and reach a more diverse group of aspiring, developing and established physicists, yielding an even greater representation of minoritised people than is seen in the general UK population.

From the feedback we received from the speakers and chairs, it was an uplifting and positive experience that they were proud to be involved in. A recurring theme in speakers’ feedback was the supportive atmosphere that persisted throughout the series. This supportive atmosphere could have been a contributing factor to an increase in confidence perceived by some speakers. One speaker pointed out that it was the first time they had a platform in a conference that was inclusive by design and made them feel like they belonged. Boosted by the confidence this sense of belonging created in the speaker, they were able to break down complex physical concepts into accessible and memorable pieces, a science communication skill that they have capitalised on since the webinar series. Enhancing the skills needed to communicate and disseminate science effectively was echoed by other speakers who noted the importance of research presentations that are both entertaining and accessible as well as scientifically sound.

Several speakers said that presenting at the TIGER webinar series has helped them advance their career by gaining experience and developing skills that they have since leveraged in job applications and interviews. Speakers also received positive messages from audience members telling them how much they enjoyed the presentations, which might act like a positive feedback to further amplify the sense of belonging and confidence in speakers. These messages also demonstrate the appetite for visible role models that reflect the diversity among the audience. Last but not least, the supportive atmosphere furthermore encouraged one speaker to reflect on their personal academic journey and the broader context of national inclusion and diversity statistics with a critical lens during their presentation. Presenting in our webinar series gave them the confidence to speak about funding inequality at a diversity & inclusion event organised by an American learned society.

Onwards and upwards

Following the success of the physics webinar series, TIGER in STEMM have now secured a grant from the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC) to host a follow-up series in chemistry in summer 2021 (https://www.tigerinstemm.org/events/summer-2021-webinar-series-in-chemistry). The RSC promotes diverse speakers and has British Sign Language interpretation at webinars. Upon awarding the funding, the RSC has recognised the strengths in our approach to promoting diversity within the discipline and allowed us to broaden the type of speakers who could benefit from this platform. In the upcoming chemistry series, we will feature an equal number of early career and undergraduate speakers where the latter will receive training in a session on effective public speaking delivered by a proficient science communicator.

Whilst the webinar series will return soon to the TIGER in STEMM platform, the learnings from the inaugural series remain strikingly clear. Diversity of speakers can not only enhance inclusion in virtual meetings and webinars, it can also strengthen and complement the quality of the scientific discussion, engagement, and impact in the event. Having demonstrated this through our pilot series, despite being brief and unfunded, the evidence for the boons of broadening the diversity of physicists who are invited to speak while building a platform where everybody feels respected and safe is irrefutable.

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