By Mary Ellen Holden

On this International Women’s Day, we spotlight Hannah Young, a seasoned diplomat with the UK’s Foreign, Commonwealth, and Development Office who currently is the Deputy Consul General at the British Consulate General New York. Hannah is a proven leader, driving progress and stemming the gap in all areas of life where women and girls are marginalized, stereotyped and/or underrepresented. As a decision-maker and a mother, she is determined to forge a gender-equal world.

During the pandemic, under Hannah’s direction, the British Consulate green-lit a collaboration with the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media to assess the depiction of STEM television characters based on gender identity in UK family television. The study, entitled Closing the STEM Gender Gap: A Study of Gender & STEM Representations in UK Family Television, was the first of its kind. Hannah explained that “Over the years, the Consulate in New York developed a program called STEM the GAP which focuses on economic equality within technology. I wanted this initiative to be at the forefront of our New York efforts.” The findings, which include a comparison with the US, establish a foundation for improving female STEM representation globally. The Consulate also commissioned a Toolkit for Content Creators to help them navigate this journey.

Mary Ellen Holden: Your background as a UK diplomat is fascinating; please share a little about your journey?

Hannah Young: I am a bit of a traveling nomad and a career civil servant. I started as a diplomat in Afghanistan at the height of the conflict, leading a Kabul team that set up an anti-corruption unit to build national police forces. This was a seminal time for me – to be young in a war zone with two bodyguards. I worked on issues that mattered, and, as you can imagine, it was a tough environment for women to lead. After five years, I transferred into domestic civil service, where I did a number of policy roles including the International Agreements Unit within the UK’s Department for Exiting the EU. Before New York, I was the Prime Minister’s lead official on home affairs policy, including everything from criminal justice reform to counter-terrorism and immigration. This was a challenging and rewarding time. I always coveted that role. I wanted to prove that I could do that job as a woman with a young family and made that part of my pitch. 24/7, but I made it work, and I’m proud. It’s essential to do the difficult job and to encourage girls to see their potential. When I brought my daughter to work, she knew that mommy was relevant and important. Now, I’m back in the international space; my career thread is choosing jobs that I find challenging in the foreign policy and public service space.

Mary Ellen: Please describe your current role as Deputy Consul General at the British Consulate General New York? What are your top priorities for the Consulate?

Hannah: I am responsible for leading political, economic, and social policy for the region, including New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Fairfield County in Connecticut. We have a heavy focus on economic prosperity, and we look to advance our UK agenda while concurrently learning and sharing best practices. We look to stand together and deepen the relationship between our two countries by building people-to-people links. While the UK may currently be considered a partner of choice for the US, we can’t assume that the UK will continue to be preferred. We need to cultivate relationships. For example, the New York region has a strong art and culture link to the UK. We founded a monthly arts and culture publication to keep the pulse of information flowing to our US constituents during the pandemic.

Mary Ellen: What prompted you to partner with the Institute on this particular study?

Hannah: I wanted to address what’s referred to as “the leaky pipeline” in STEM professions. These are points throughout the pipeline where girls reach crossroads and decide what subjects they want to study or what career they want to pursue. We know from the Geena Davis Institute that there is all of this incredible data about diversity in children’s media in the US. Still, we couldn’t find comparative research in the UK. Partnering with the Institute was a no-brainer as it has the expertise, the US context, and the relationship with the content creators’ sector. It is very credible as these inputs are all intertwined. If you want to close the gender pay gap – you need to understand the influences, including the media, so the Institute was an obvious partner for us.

From a trade perspective, one in eight businesses in the UK are creative businesses – it generates more than $100B in the UK per year; partnering with the US in this space is particularly powerful.

Mary Ellen: What findings were most surprising?

Hannah: I think the most surprising was that there were more female STEM leads in the UK. As a working mother, I was glad to see that female STEM characters in the UK were much less likely to be shown sacrificing their personal life for the job (5.5% for the UK vs. 42.9% for the US). I’m pleased that young girls like my daughter can see that they can grow up and have a promising career, a strong family, enjoy hobbies outside of the job and working life.

Mary Ellen: How did the research insights correlate with your personal experience watching STEM programming with your young children?

Hannah: The report resonated a lot with me. Notably, the nature of TV has changed from when I was growing up. We had a range of television programs that we could watch. Today, kids can binge-watch the same show repeatedly, which poses a significant challenge when the selected programming is not wholesome or gender-balanced. As a parent, you have to be even more aware and discerning even when you’re exhausted. This is why the accountability partnership between parents and content creators is essential. We each need to play a role and take responsibility for what children watch on television and what they do. The headline message is that parents must cultivate STEM interests and activities from an early age. It was just my daughter’s seventh birthday last week, and she wanted LEGOS as she loves to build things, so we went to the LEGO store on Saturday and Sunday. She also likes playing chess which gets her young brother excited and involved.

Mary Ellen: Why did the toolkit resonate with you?

Hannah: As noted above, as parents and content creators, we need to take responsibility. We need to make the first move. As parents, we need to understand what our children are interested in and why. We need to challenge stereotypes (for example, when your child says – “daddy, you be the doctor because you are the man” – ask where that preconception came from. Call out bad practices.

As content creators, it’s important to cast characters across different occupations so girls can see that they can do whatever they want to do – beyond their sex.

I want to do more in this space. We are looking into mom’s networks, media stories, and potentially partnering with science institutions. The first step is to get the toolkit out there broadly and get the message out before our kids turn on the TV.

Mary Ellen: How can intersectional and gender equity in media increase diversity in the UK workforce? Do you think it helps to position the UK as a world leader?

Hannah: It makes economic and societal sense to invest in gender equity; we know that organizations with a better gender balance see +15% productivity. The UK Government Equalities Office (which focuses entirely on diversity) sits at the Cabinet’s heart. Our Ministry focused on women and equality is headed by Baroness Floella Benjamin. Our prime minister frequently speaks on women and girls’ education to unlock that potential across the globe.

We also want to see more women leading and visible across STEM organizations and accomplishments. We want to see them trailblazing from the COVID-19 vaccine onward! The UK has an excellent story to tell, but we don’t have all of the answers. We are tackling critical issues as we want to play a leading role on the world stage. With the US and UK serving as the most significant forces exporting creativity, our collaboration highlights the challenging insights required to prompt change. These insights, coupled with our just-released toolkit, are powerful.

Mary Ellen: What does the Institute’s motto – “If She Can See It, She Can Be It” – mean to you?

Hannah: It’s a brilliant motto. We must shine a light and encourage girls to unlock their potential. I want my daughter to have unconditional support to pursue her interests and unlimited potential. When I ask her what she wants to be – she spouts off five different professions; my mother saw the potential and changed her career in her forties as well. The first part of the motto is key – ‘if she can see it’ – because if she can’t see it, she is much less likely to be it. We need positive role models in media.

Mary Ellen: How has the pandemic reprioritized the global importance of STEM?

Hannah: From a macro level, it’s thrown a spotlight on the importance of STEM – look to the vaccine. Another benefit has been that the public and private sectors have worked together in a way you don’t typically see. That’s powerful for STEM.

If we want to talk about gender and COVID-19 more broadly, there are negatives as COVID-19 has a higher impact on women (job loss and childcare).

It’s a real double-edged sword. While the UK government has rolled out programs that have helped, I wouldn’t underestimate the impact this period has had on children and women in particular. I want to give my husband a shout-out. At the start of the pandemic, I was still going into the Prime Minister’s office at Number 10, and despite his challenging job, he picked up the bulk of the childcare for our family.

Mary Ellen: Is there anything I haven’t asked that you’d like to share?

Hannah: I was thinking about how the relationship between parents and content creators is a partnership. It reminds me of the phrase that it takes a whole village to raise a child. It’s incumbent on us to become familiar with our toolkit and to partner for the sake of our children.

Madeline Di Nonno, CEO of the Geena Davis Institute


Close Up with Madeline Di Nonno
President & CEO, Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media

We are so proud of our collaboration with the British Consulate General New York, which identified the difficult steps required to start to close the STEM gender and diversity gap. Today, we jointly release our Creators’ Toolkit to accompany the Research Report, published on February 11th. Toolkits provide Content Creators with strategies to develop media and entertainment that encourages girls to imagine a world of STEM career possibilities. As Hannah rightly posits, it takes the collective impact of all content creators, programmers, parents, educators – to institute systemic change. As our tagline goes, “If She Can See It, She Can Be It.” Women and girls need to see STEM professionals onscreen, which will inspire them to pursue those career paths.