What do you do on a typical day (if there is such a thing)?
You’re right, there is really no such thing. I always drop my kids off at school and then either cycle in or drive depending on the day’s commitments – I try to cycle 3 times a week but usually drive on the two days when I have to get back early for my turn to pick them up. Our Centre always meets up in a coffee area for morning and afternoon tea, and I try to go along when I can. It’s a good opportunity to catch people and pick their brains, and often there is cake – this morning one of our students brought in a very nice homemade orange and lemon drizzle cake J Most of my work is desk or meeting based as I don’t get to spend as much time in the lab as I used to. But I might be in a student’s lab discussing their experiments and looking at the results coming in, deciding together where next to develop the system or collectively scratching our heads about what is really going on. I might be writing a paper or making comments and additions to one written by somebody else. I need to attend to project management on the projects for which I am PI (Principal Investigator – this would be termed Project Manager or Project Lead in other sectors). So I periodically need to check budgets and timescales to make sure we can do what we said we would, and we hold fortnightly project meetings. I get involved in consultancy on some projects – right now I am working to a deadline to finish a report for a customer, collaborating with university colleagues in another team. I’m learning a lot as it’s a new area for me. I chair a UK based technology forum that organises technical colloquia, and one our meetings is this week so there is a last-minute flurry of emails concerning the arrangements.
What’s the best thing about working in STEM?
There is a fantastic combination of technical challenge, curiosity, variety and usefulness. This makes the work fun, interesting and fulfilling. I love my job and feel that I am doing my bit to make a small part of the world a little better. Would you get all of that in a different profession? Plus, my kids think it’s cool that I work with lasers.
What was it that most appealed to you and how did you get into the job you’re in now?
I was working in the gas industry, mainly as a project lead on new technology for detecting natural gas leaks. I also became involved in a variety of other projects that needed skills in optics and / or gas detection. The company was changing, and with more limited opportunities to be involved in new developments. I realised that I would have greater freedom to develop my ideas from within academia and had already become aware of the reputation of the Centre for Engineering Photonics at Cranfield. The university also appealed on two counts: its cultural closeness to industry and its geographical closeness to my partner’s workplace. There were no suitable openings so I applied for an EPSRC Advanced Fellowship on the offchance. I was surprised and delighted when I got this as they are very competitive. I joined the Centre and set up gas detection laboratories – fortunately gas detection is a very good technical fit and we find there is a lot of cross-fertilisation of ideas.
We develop optical instrumentation, using light to measure things that can’t be measured by other means. My work specifically relates to the detection and measurement of gases and volatile species, with applications in industrial safety, environmental monitoring and healthcare diagnostics.
At school I loved physics and maths, and decided to study physics at university without really knowing where it would lead. I was advised to study engineering instead, as people said there would be more career opportunities. That’s not true, actually you can do more with a physics degree, it closes very few doors and helps to futureproof your career. And here I am, working at the interface between physics and engineering, as both a Chartered Physicist and Chartered Engineer. I think there is limited visibility of physicists working in industry and in engineering, there’s a lot more of us than people realise.
I didn’t imagine that I would be working in such a creative job – almost all our projects involve doing something new for the first time. At school I wasn’t the slightest bit creative. I have realised that I am a creative problem solver – I need a real problem to think about and then technical ideas will often occur to me, some of which we then get to try out. Creativity can also be fostered by having a diverse team with many different types of experience. My experience in industry has given me a different outlook, and I now see that difference as an advantage.
Did you have any particular influencers that encouraged you? Or anyone who was a barrier to your progress?
My parents were enormously influential and encourage me to follow what I wanted even though they too didn’t know where it would lead. And teachers at my school were supportive, I was quite unusual as I was the only girl in my A-level maths and physics classes. At work, I have worked with both helpful and difficult individuals and over time I learnt how to get the most out of working with all the people I came across. I don’t like confrontation so I have learnt to get along via persuasion and sidestepping potentially awkward situations, without the individuals concerned necessarily realising that this is happening.
Have you faced any challenges as a woman working in STEM? If so, what were they and how have you faced them?
There have been lots of minor challenges that can be put down to being a woman. Before I came here I worked in a chemical company, a water utility and a gas industry consultancy. I have seen women (including me) objectified, sidelined from technical work into administration, assumed to be their boss’s secretaries, passed over for promotion or offered a job on a lower grade than the previous (male) incumbent. I have been squeezed past a bit too close in a small lab and I have had put-down remarks from people who should have known better. I expect that many women experience similar things, and this will be true across many professions including the law, banking, medicine for example. Having a PhD makes a massive difference as a woman. I started putting my title at the foot of my emails and the assumptions that I was a secretary dried up. This might be one reason why I have experienced much less of this stuff working in a university. I was also in a group of women who were given rather subservient roles on a workshop organised for our clients by a colleague and we were quite patronised by the clients as a result. We put up with it in front of the clients and then politely but firmly took the piss out of the (male) organiser for the next few months. It brought us together and he never did anything like it again.
In my present role, I share childcare with my partner (we both work part time) but I still have a larger share of childcare than many of my full-time male colleagues. I find foreign travel particularly challenging as I have to move heaven and earth to organise it. My parents usually come to stay with us to help out if I am away. This means I am extremely selective about travel and have had to turn down some opportunities to visit conferences as a result.
What social, cultural, economic, and emotional undercurrents do you think are at play when it comes to encouraging girls and women into STEM subjects?
Clearly these factors are significant, as evidenced by the fact that the proportion of women choosing to enter STEM professions is very different in different countries (and the UK proportion is low in comparison with many countries). I am a member of the Institute of Physics, which has done a great deal to unpick the issues. A recent report describes the STEM gender gap as one element of a general lack of gender neutrality and has demonstrated that when gender bias is addressed across all of a school’s subjects, the number of girls choosing to study STEM increases dramatically. Another excellent initiative is People Like Me, which aims to describe STEM careers in language more often used by girls when describing themselves.
However we need to be careful not just to claim that this is a problem of society or schools. The concept of the leaky pipeline shows that the representation of women reduces at every stage in a STEM career, and the gender pay gap illustrates that this happens in most other sectors. Therefore we also need to get our own houses in order. Initiatives such as the long-running Athena SWAN award and Project Juno are part of this.
It has been suggested that more should be done to attract mid-career changers from industries that are making redundancies into engineering and manufacturing – do you agree? How might we go about doing that?
This is a no-brainer for the industries and people concerned, the question is how to do it? For industries making redundancies, we would have to look at where these are coming from, in terms of both geography and skill level. The point when the industry is making people redundant is the point where you have the opportunity to suggest new possibilities and there may be opportunities to package the options up for people. For anybody who doesn’t have the right skills it is going to be a financial risk to become re-educated, especially if they have family responsibilities. It’s not simply going to be a case of going on a short course to learn some basic IT skills, STEM skills take years of education, so proper funding will be needed and / or an improvement in part-time access. Affected populations in older industries may be geographically remote from newer industries so distance learning could also be an important part of the solution. And apprenticeships could be part of the mix but I suspect they are being targeted mainly at school leavers and not mid-career changers.
I would also include within this people (often but not exclusively women) who have left the workforce for a period of a few years while they look after their children. Here, there is an opportunity to market STEM careers to parents via schools – perhaps at the same time as offering carer advice to their children.
It has also been suggested that until STEM industries improve their approach to flexible working, women won’t look favourably upon those kind of jobs. What’s your experience of/opinion on that?
My experience of flexible working has been positive and I think many STEM jobs are highly suited to this. My partner also works as an engineer; we both work part time at 80%FTE and split the childcare between us. Research and development is well suited to a culture without rigid hours – except for safety considerations when doing practical work, it doesn’t really matter when we do the work. Many projects are collaborative and team based so that part-time working is perfectly possible. And academics are probably at the forefront: I have a high degree of autonomy over how, where and when I work, and my role has grown with me. If I need to have a meeting with my son’s teacher or watch sports day, I just do it and I can organise everything else around it. We have excellent support for off-site working, which makes working from home relatively straightforward and generally seamless.
You do have to be well-organised, plan ahead (I put the school holidays for 2019 in my diary as soon as they came out), clear about communicating when you will be available, and prepared to walk out of meetings that have overrun (people soon realise they will have to finish on time). Most part-timers I know finish their work on time, don’t drag it out, don’t faff about or spend long periods chatting to their colleagues, and often prefer to work over lunch rather than have long days.
However there are some challenges. I do think that part-time working is seldom considered at the point of recruiting somebody to a project, and job sharing would be difficult for specialised roles. It’s hard to match project-based funding from external bodies, which can be less flexible than we would like, to individual circumstances. But it is also true that when we recruit, the ideal candidate often doesn’t exist, so we can end up making our minds up on how a team will be organised based on who has applied. There is an opportunity here; we could get better at anticipating this and allowing for more flexibility from the outset. People find new part time work in different ways, by approaching heads of research groups and discussing their situation before anybody sits down to write a job advert, or by negotiating flexible working when interviewed for a full time job.
One suggestion is that policymakers, educators and the industry should make better connections between STEM and broader social impact. Do you think that would make a difference to the career aspirations of girls and women?
Good point. We often discuss careers in terms of impressive sounding technological toys and acronyms. This can be offputting to many people who have a different motivation to work, not just women. I have worked with many scientists and engineers who were motivated by the prospect of solving the world’s problems or by service to society. My skills are in optical sensors and we build sophisticated measurement systems, which during my career have been applied to maintenance of water quality, keeping people safe from explosive or toxic gases, and disease diagnosis. To build systems that have an impact it is necessary to consider not just their technical performance but also how that relates to the application, including human factors, organisational procedures, standards and the economics and business case for manufacture and use. Communication with non-specialists is therefore an important aspect of the job. The point is that these specialist skills in STEM can be applied to many societal issues that people care about and draw on additional transferrable skills that women might have in spades.