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There’s no workplace equity for women in STEM – and COVID-19 made it worse




The events of 2020 are reshaping the way we live, work, teach, and learn. And while we have all been affected differently, the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on women has been particularly significant.

A recent report by the Rapid Research Information Forum found the pandemic has left women facing disproportionate increases in caring responsibilities and disruptions to working hours and job security.

The hard-won gains made by women in science, technology, engineering, and maths (STEM) are at risk, especially if employers of people with STEM skills do not closely monitor and mitigate the gender impact of their decisions.

The pre-pandemic impact of caring for children and the uptake of flexible working arrangements are just two of the issues considered in the second edition of the STEM Workforce Report, released this week by the Office of the Chief Scientist. Drawing on the 2016 Australian Census data, this report provides a comprehensive analysis of the STEM workforce in Australia.

It analyses the nearly 1.2 million people with vocational STEM qualifications and the roughly 700,000 people with university STEM qualifications in the Australian labor force in 2016. As such, it will enable informed decision-making to help plan our future STEM workforce needs.

[Read: The lack of women in cybersecurity puts us all at greater risk]

The slow pace of change

Our analysis found that people with STEM qualifications work in a wide range of occupations and industries. On average, they earn more than those with non-STEM qualifications, and these incomes increase with qualification level. In 2016, 34% of employed STEM university graduates earned A$104,000 or above, compared with 24% of non-STEM university graduates. Of STEM university graduates, 32% of those with a bachelor’s degree, 34% of those with a master, and 45% of those with a doctoral degree earned A$104,000 or above.

However, the pace of change towards a fairer and more diverse STEM labor force is still slow. In 2006, 27% of STEM university graduates in the labor force were women. A decade later, this had only risen to 29%.

Just 3.3% of Australian-born women with a university STEM qualification were unemployed, as of census night in 2016. But the corresponding figure for similarly qualified overseas-born women who arrived in Australia between 2006 and 2016 was 14.1%.

Women in STEM also have lower average pay than similarly qualified men, in both part-time and full-time roles. For full-time workers with university STEM qualifications, 45% of men earned A$104,000 or above, compared with 26% of women.

Income distribution of full-time workers with university qualifications, by field and gender. Office of the Chief Scientist, Author provided

How to keep women in STEM

Women who pause their careers to have children often end up leaving the labor force or returning on reduced hours. Flexible work arrangements – including working part-time and working from home – are crucial tools for keeping parents in the labor force. Initiatives such as childcare subsidies and incentives for fathers to take significant parental and carer’s leave have proven effective in supporting equitable outcomes in the workforce.

The flow diagram below represents labor force data for women aged 15-35 who did not have a child and were working full-time in 2011. When we reviewed the status of these women five years later, we found that STEM-qualified women who had children were less likely to still be employed, and more likely to be working part-time. In contrast, the work status of STEM-qualified men was largely unaffected by having children, and men with children tended to earn more than those without.

Employment pathways for women with university STEM qualifications. This analysis looked at women aged 15-35 who did not have a child and were working full-time in 2011, and plots the labor force status of these women five years later. Office of the Chief Scientist, Author provided

Our report found that STEM-qualified women also do more hours of unpaid domestic work than STEM-qualified men. Women working full-time were more than twice as likely as men (19% vs 8%, respectively) to do more than 15 hours’ domestic work per week. The recently reported experiences of women taking on a higher share of child care during the COVID-19 pandemic appear to support these findings.

Beyond census data

The census data can only tell us part of the story. The Women in STEM Decadal Plan, developed by the Australian Academy of Science and the Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering, presented information from numerous sources to explore the breadth of women’s experiences. It showed that negative stereotypes dissuade women from pursuing STEM careers and “a significant cultural shift in workplaces is necessary to create gender equity for women in STEM.”

These findings are supported by research from the Male Champions of Change STEM group, which found women in STEM jobs experience significantly more barriers than men, including sexism, workplace culture, exclusion, and a lack of career progression. Two-thirds of women reported having their voices devalued at work. Listening to and acknowledging the experiences of women and other disadvantaged groups in STEM is necessary to develop and implement meaningful actions for change.

We mustn’t allow the upheaval from COVID-19 to wipe out the small gains we have made in STEM-qualified women’s representation and participation in the workforce.

The pandemic has rapidly changed the way we work, showing that workplace flexibility is just one way to keep all of us working productively. Other profound changes to workplace culture should follow, or we risk yet another decline in women’s workforce participation.The Conversation

This article is republished from The Conversation by Alan Finkel, Australia’s Chief Scientist, Office of the Chief Scientist and Lisa Harvey-Smith, Professor and Australian Government’s Women in STEM Ambassador, UNSW under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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How Jurassic sea creatures spent years crossing oceans on rafts




The English town of Lyme Regis is part of the Jurassic Coast World Heritage Site. It was here in the 1830s that William Buckland, better known for the discovery of the first dinosaur, Megalosaurus, collected fossils with another pioneering paleontologist, Mary Anning.

One of their discoveries was the remains of fossilized crinoids, sometimes known as “sea lilies.” Close relatives of sea urchins and starfish, these flower-like animals consist of a series of plates connected together in branches with a stem. The specimens from Lyme Regis, dating back to the Jurassic period over 180 million years ago, look like polished brass because they have been fossilized with pyrite (fool’s gold).

Buckland noticed that these crinoid fossils were attached to small pieces of driftwood we call lenses, which had turned into coal. He hypothesized that the crinoids had been attached to the driftwood while alive, and perhaps for their entire lives, possibly living suspended underneath it.

[Read: You can only see 1% of all microplastics dumped into the ocean]

Aaron Hunter
Crinoid fossil. Crinoid fossil, Author provided

Modern crinoids don’t typically take such journeys, but we’ve since discovered fossilized examples of groups of floating crinoids. However, it wasn’t clear whether these were really thriving colonies living on the driftwood or just short-term passengers. Now my colleagues and I have shown that such rafts could last for as long as 20 years, plenty of time for crinoids to grow to maturity and become full-time ocean sailors.

Buckland’s idea was initially seen as fantastical and the scientific world remained skeptical. Until, that is, the discovery in the 1960s of a truly spectacular group of fossils from Holzmaden, a village not far from Stuttgart, Germany. In among marine reptiles, crocodiles and ammonites were giant colonies consisting of complete logs covered with hundreds of perfectly preserved crinoids.

The German professor Adolf Seilacher and his then student (now a professor) Reimund Haude appeared to have resolved Buckland’s mystery. These floating rafts of crinoids did exist. This idea was strengthened by evidence that, in the Jurassic period, what is now Holzmaden had been a seabed that was uninhabitable due to low oxygen levels. The crinoids would have clung for life to these logs as there was no seabed for them to live on.

Fossilised crinoids around central log.
Crinoid raft fossils have now been found. R. Haude, University of Göttingen

However, not all scientists agreed. One of the key questions asked was whether these log rafts could have survived for long enough for the crinoids to grow to maturity. This can take up to ten years, based on modern growth rates of their living relatives that can still be found at depths of around 200m.

A team of scientists from the UK and Japan led by myself decided to tackle the problem. We were motivated by groundbreaking research on Japanese crinoids by Professor Tatsuo Oji, that was kept alive in the labs at the University of Tokyo.

One of the key parts of the original theory was that any floating colony of crinoids would have grown until the population became too heavy for the wood raft to support it. The log would have sunk to the oxygen-free seafloor where the crinoids would then have become fossilized. However, research on living crinoid populations off the coast of Japan revealed that the animals would be too lightweight, even in large mature colonies, to cause a log to become overburdened and sink.

Model breakup

Our research then turned towards the wood itself. We established that the way to understand how long the colony could have lasted was to develop a “diffusion model.” This estimated how long it would take before the log would become saturated with water and fail.

The wood in crinoid raft fossils hasn’t been preserved well enough for us to know what species it comes from. So we represented it in the model with a composite estimate of trees we know existed in the Jurassic, such as conifers, cycads, and ginkgo trees.

We found that the floating wood and its crinoid cargo would have been able to last for at least 15 years and maybe up to 20 years before the log would begin to sink or break up. There is evidence from museum collections of fragments of wood with entire, fully grown crinoids attached to them that could only have resulted from this kind of collapse.

Finally, we utilized a technique known as spatial point analysis developed by Dr. Emily Mitchell, to plot the spaces between the fossils and work out whether the position pattern is ecological, environmental, or both. This enabled us to estimate how this crinoid community might have looked on the log.

Line drawing of crinoids hanging from log with fish.
Artist’s impression of a crinoid raft. Royal Society

We found that the crinoids do indeed hang suspended underneath the driftwood, but clustered towards one end of it. Although difficult to observe in the original fossils, the pattern resembles that of other modern rafting species such as goose barnacles. They tend to inhabit the area at the back of a raft where there is the least resistance, which can tell us the direction of travel of the colony across the ocean.

This research has now put beyond doubt that crinoid raft colonies could exist and survive for many years to grow to maturity and travel the vast distances across the Jurassic oceans. They are a deep-time example of similar structures we see in today’s oceans.

These exciting techniques are now being used by a new team to compare living populations on the seafloor to their Jurassic forebears. This could reveal how past changes in climate have shaped marine communities and will help scientists understand how such communities might respond to future challenges in an ever-changing world.The Conversation

This article is republished from The Conversation by Aaron W Hunter, Science Guide & Tutor, Dept. of Earth Sciences, University of Cambridge under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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NeuralCam Live is a great AI-powered app for turning your iPhone into a webcam




How many video calls are too many video calls? Well, during this pandemic there’s seems to be no limit. And your laptop’s webcam might not the ideal camera to use for these calls because of its quality.

Some manufacturers such as Fujifilm and Olympus let you turn the camera into a webcam. But I don’t expect everyone to have one lying around. Besides, billions of people over the world has an iPhone. So, it’s easier to turn that into a webcam.

Luckily, NeuralCam’s new app, NeuralCam Live, lets you do that and more. The company has previously released apps for iPhone for low-light photography even if your iPhone doesn’t support it. Its new app is to facilitate high-quality video during those conference calls.

Setup and features

The setup is simple: install the app, and then install the Mac driver for virtual webcams (instructions in the app). Then connect your phone to your Mac using a USB cable, and join the meeting through the platform of your choice.

I have used the app for a couple of days, and I really like some of the features. The virtual background feature in Zoom, is often a hit or miss on my old MacBook Air. While using NeuralCam Live, I can use its head bubble feature to form a ring around my head and track its movement. It also blurs most of the background.

Head bubble in NeuralCam Live

If I’m talking to the folks in the US, I have to schedule calls in my evening or night time in India. And during those calls, lighting is not ideal for webcams in my room. NeuralCam Live has this low-light mode that illuminates the face using machine learning. Plus, there’s circle light option to brighten up the things more.

NeuralCam Live low light mode

What’s more, the app has a gesture guard to automatically detect nudity or face-touching gestures such as nose-picking or sneezing and will automatically blur the video to save the embarrassment.

Sadly, you can’t use this app through Safari as the browser doesn’t allow virtual webcams. You can’t use this if you have a Windows machine either, but the team said that it’s working on a client for the platform. Plus, the developers are also working on an iOS SDK to let other apps integrate some of NeuralCam’s smart into their apps.

You can download the app from here.

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Published August 12, 2020 — 08:59 UTC

Ivan Mehta

Ivan Mehta

August 12, 2020 — 08:59 UTC

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How to stay motivated at work if COVID-19 has crushed your vacation plans




It’s possible that, under normal circumstances, you would be getting ready to go on vacation right about now. August is, after all, prime vacation season — at least in Europe.

But it’s 2020 and nothing goes as planned. If your vacation plans have changed — or been canceled — as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, you have my sympathy.

This time of year typically sees many of us use an upcoming vacation as the prime motivator to stay engaged at work — so, what happens when that goes out of the window?

Here’s how to stay focused and motivated at work if you’re not going anywhere this summer.

[Read: COVID-19 canceled doctors’ office visits — these startups are bringing the doctor to you]

Take time off regardless — you need a vacation

I totally appreciate that a staycation, or sitting around your living room for two weeks, is far less appealing than sunning yourself in the Mediterranean but you should still consider taking the time off, if you can. 

After all, you’ve probably endured a lot of challenges and change over the past several months and that, my friend, can take its toll — both mentally and physically.

Indeed, burnout is all too common these days and it’s important to schedule some time out, even if it’s just a few days.

If money is tight, consider cheaper alternatives such as camping, or avoid staying over-night and go on day-trips instead.

Set yourself goals and have clear objectives

You need to set goals for yourself, even if you don’t communicate these to your colleagues. 

Telling yourself that you’re doing your best is great but it’s not enough.

By sharing deadlines with your colleagues, you’re making sure someone will hold you accountable — and this may be all the motivation you need.

If you don’t adhere to clear objectives or deliverables, it can be even harder to focus or stay motivated and you’ll likely start procrastinating

Don’t take too much on

It’s so easy to get carried away and say ‘yes’ to everything but it’s important to avoid spreading yourself too thin if you want to stay focused and productive.

If you have to look after several projects at once figure out a schedule that means you can get stuff done simultaneously without getting stressed out.

Ask for help when necessary and communicate any issues in a timely manner — and if you take time off make sure this doesn’t affect any deadlines. 

Keeping busy is great as it’ll make time go by faster, but you need to get the balance right.

Pay attention to the right things

You need to work smart. So, stay focused on the projects or tasks that actually require your attention, if you do, you’ll be far more efficient.

Take this opportunity to evaluate your managerial skills — aka stop micromanaging — and avoid distractions. I mean, do you really need to be on Twitter or Slack all the time?

Prioritize your tasks and avoid setting up unnecessary meetings and distractions. 

A change of scenery

If you’re struggling to stay motivated because you’ve literally been sat at the same desk every day for the past several months, it may be time for a change. 

I took my own advice this morning and brought my iMac downstairs (from my home office) to my kitchen table and I can’t even tell you how much it’s helped me. 

Now, instead of staring out the window and people watching, I get to stare at a fully-stocked fruit bowl all day. Seriously, though, it’s a welcome change.

Reward yourself

Using a vacation as motivation is a great strategy but there are plenty of other ways you can treat yourself when you get your work done.

Structure your days and plan out your leisure time. If you get your work done in time, you may want to reward yourself with your favorite meal or by watching some Netflix.

Try and push yourself out of your comfort zone and try new things. Instead of having your meal at home, you could plan a picnic in your garden or a local park.

If you can’t go on your dream beach vacation, schedule several day trips to the seaside on weekends.

Don’t be ashamed if you feel down about not being able to go away but don’t let that get in the way of work — and more importantly, don’t let it ruin your summer.

Published August 12, 2020 — 08:51 UTC

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