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
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.
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.