As a woman working in engineering, research and then industry, I admit that myself and my other female colleagues felt like we were ‘one of the boys’; I quietly scoffed at those that championed equality and called for non-sexist language. What did they know? Things had changed.
But perhaps not as much as I thought, or hoped, and nothing highlighted this more than a technician telling me: “I don’t know why they let you girls do PhDs – you just go off and have babies”. As I’m sure you can appreciate, it took me a long while to process those words.
Later, quite a few years later, I wanted to have a little more flexibility in my working hours – 5am starts on Mondays were tough and it took me four hours to drive 100 miles home to my house by the sea each Friday. I really only wanted to reclaim Friday nights for a quick sail on summer evenings, you can’t blame me for that. But a year on, my feet were leaden, my energy sapped, so I looked for work closer to home. However, I didn’t see this might be related to a wider issue for my fellow women in science and engineering. I didn’t recognise that, although somewhat quietly, my views had changed. I realised that actually I wasn’t ‘one of the lads’ when I didn’t get invited to the stag parties; I was after all a mere hen, and an outsider hen at that. I wasn’t your typical girl, lipstick – yeah maybe, but in truth, I’d never really figured out what ‘girls’ talked about.
The Changing Tide
I read the Government’s ‘Rising Tide Report’ in 1996, and it talked about why there were so few women in science. There wasn’t much data, but the message was clear: more needed to be done, and this resonated with me on a number of levels. And there we go – my attitude as a feminist stepped boldly out in the open. My team leader at work suggested I look at a short secondment in London that had come up, but I wasn’t particularly interested in running the women in science unit. Others asked me about it and then the CEO said a London posting would be a good career move, after all, it was for only six months. I was there for 3.5 years.
There’s something you should know about me: I like to DO things, make an impact. So my six-month secondment brief to keep things ‘ticking over’ didn’t really fit well with me. After three weeks I went to my boss and asked what he really wanted, but he just replied: “Just keep it ticking over”. I answered: “But you know, I’m not that sort of person. I’d like to leave you with something.” “Like what?” He asked. My response was this: “Can I write you a strategic plan? Something that identifies where we are and what we could do, what we NEED to do to make a difference?” And that was it.
I saw what changes we could make, what needed to be implemented, and what we could work towards. I had to grow the community to get more foot soldiers, to gather some evidence and research that identified some clear issues, and above all we needed a strong set of data for benchmarking impact and highlighting the areas for action. And ever since, I have known what needs to be done. I have created and innovated, gained funding and been funded to research, write reports and run programmes all directed at achieving parity of opportunity in science and engineering, not just for women, but for everyone so we do better science and better engineering.
So What Did I Achieve?
I instigated a national dataset of women in science and engineering, with a research report on the data. I organised a conference on research on women in STEM, was responsible for a study into SET returners, I also brought other Departments together to work on a big piece looking at women in IT electronics and communications.
I grew the community; I woke people up. I helped them see that things could be different – that we needed a campaign, a vision. Better resources were asked for, and I made that happen. Now, I see things bogged down in gaining more evidence. There is a lack of social scientists exploring this and much more directed and sustained effort is needed.
Today, I have an engineering and science toolset which is here to help organisations grow, believe in themselves and makes things better for women, and in turn better for everyone! I want to help grow and diversify engineering and create engineers that see the world, which is full of people who need different solutions. But to fully achieve this we need to educate our engineers differently, and this is where my tools and my professional expertise can wholeheartedly help make a difference. These are delivered through Katalytik, the consultancy that I set up in 2004 to work with fellow passionate professionals as Associates.