Features / Women in STEM

Nine of Bristol’s brilliant women in STEM

By ellie pipe, Thursday Mar 7, 2019

As an A-level student, Lara Lalemi was all too aware of the lack of role models in her chosen field of chemistry. Not letting this hold her back, she set out to be what she couldn’t see in the industry, instigating change from within.

Now working towards her Chemistry PhD at the University of Bristol, Lara is passionate about making STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) subjects accessible to all and improving diversity in the sector.

She is one of a number of women in Bristol breaking the mould and making their way in what remains a very male dominated-field.

Photo © Sarah Koury – KoLAB Studios

Lara Lalemi
Chemistry PhD student at the University of Bristol

Speaking about her chosen field, Lara says: “One of the main challenges facing the STEM industry is the severe lack of BAME (black, Asian and minority ethnic) teachers and academics. If you are unable to see academics like yourself in roles that you would aspire to, it is less likely for you to believe it is an accessible career for you. This generates a leaky pipeline in the higher education system.

“My advice would be; if you are passionate about your subject, be what you fail to see in the industry. The only way to change the STEM community is to fearlessly pursue the positions you want.

“When there are an equal balance of men, women and other gendered people, I feel the sense of community within the STEM industry will only improve. By selecting research from a pool of different people, you are not only increasing the amount of papers available for students to read, you are increasing the amount of voices the students hear.”

Professor Catherine Hobbs
Associate dean of research and enterprise in the faculty of environment and technology, UWE Bristol

Only eight per cent of maths professors in the UK are female – Catherine is one of them. As well as teaching maths at UWE, she supports researchers across a range of STEM disciplines to find the right resources to do their research.

On what inspired her to pursue a career in STEM, Catherine says: “I loved mathematics (and STEM subjects more broadly) at school. I found mathematics challenging, but very satisfying – the problem-solving, the precision of the way mathematics is communicated and the elegance of the subject. Having a dad who was a maths teacher helped, as I didn’t perceive mathematics as an unattainable subject.

“I enjoyed teaching but also wanted to continue to learn new things.  Being a university lecturer allows you to do both of these. I’m still getting used to answering the question “is it miss or mrs?” with “it is professor, actually.” It feels a bit pretentious, but I think it is good to make the point that women can do this. Only 8 per cent of maths professors in the UK are female.

“A main challenge is bringing sufficient well-qualified STEM graduates into the workforce – particularly in engineering. Bringing more women into STEM would help to address this.  However, there are still barriers to this, including an outdated image of what STEM careers might involve (you don’t have to wear a hard hat!), and, sad to say, some outdated attitudes to women in very male-dominated professions.

“My advice is: believe in yourself, but don’t feel you have to be a genius to succeed as an academic.  Hard work and curiosity are important and being open to asking questions and to new ideas.”

Becky Maund
Software support engineer for ForgeRock, a company that specialises in digital identity management.

Becky’s parents were both engineers and this was partly what inspired her career path. “During school summer holidays, my brother and I would often visit my dad’s office, and aside from finding drawing on laminates for the overhead projector highly amusing, I was also fascinated by the hardware chips he was designing and building,” she says.

“I’ve always had a real fascination with problem-solving, and taking things apart to see how they work. After going through college and still not knowing what it was I wanted to do, I fell into an IT support role and that’s where it all began.

On the challenges facing women in STEM, Becky says: “Sometimes I’m really not taken seriously and there’s still quite an ignorance lingering that women can have successful careers in STEM.

“I remember in a job role around six years ago, I was a service desk team lead and I had taken a phone call for some technical support. The gentleman on the other end of the line asked to speak to a support engineer. It took me three attempts at convincing him I was a support engineer, for him to finally accept my assistance. He apologised and explained he thought I was the receptionist.

“The advice I’d give is to grab every opportunity you can and run with it. You don’t necessarily need degrees and paperwork to prove your worth, sometimes just having the right type of mind and attitude can set you off in the right direction and keep you there. Be bold, and don’t be afraid to ask for what you want.

“Bristol has a lot of new emerging activity going on, which is making it a very fun and exciting place to be part of. We have plenty of ‘women in tech’ networking opportunities around the city and it’s got the buzz of a big city like London, but with more of a close community feel.

“I think we need to break down gender norms and stereotypes with children to encourage more girls to show an interest in careers in STEM.”

Antonia Forster
Planetarium operator at We The Curious, science presenter and TEDx Bristol speaker

Inspired by role models such as BBC Natural History TV presenter Charlotte Uhlenbroek, Antonia trained in zoology at the University of Bristol. But during her stint as a PhD student in a laboratory, she felt like the ‘odd one out’.

“Although I wasn’t the only woman, I was one of few; and the youngest, least experienced, and (to my knowledge) the only LGBTQ person. For me personally, being in that position makes me feel like there’s a lot of responsibility on my shoulders.

“I felt like I couldn’t slip up, lest it reflect on all people of my demographic (gender, age and orientation-wise). I didn’t know ANY female professors in my field, to act as a mentor.

“I also found that academic environments had poor provisions for mental health; a problem that is increasingly flagged up in academia. I was relatively lucky though – I didn’t encounter any overt sexism or problematic behaviour. I know many other women that have not been as fortunate.

“Now I work in an environment that has a very equal gender balance and values diversity.

“The advice I would give is identify what you enjoy, whether it’s a specific subject or a broad type of activity and become an expert at that.

“If you do have a specific career plan, that’s great – but don’t be afraid to deviate from it. We’re always told to fight for equality and, of course, I agree – but also, don’t be afraid to walk away if a role or career isn’t right for you. The weight of the world is not on your shoulders alone.”

Dr Lisa Brodie
Head of the department of engineering design and mathematics at UWE Bristol

Speaking about her path into her chosen career, Lisa says: “I have always had a curiosity for how things are made, my earliest memory was wondering how they get the toothpaste inside the tube.”

On the sector today, she continues: “Diversity within the sector is a challenge. Female engineers are still in the minority, but what has changed is our approach to this, we are working hard to change the perception of engineering and ‘lift the lid’ on what engineering really is, and what you can do as an engineer.”

A supportive working environment makes all the difference in ensuring women do not have to choose between a career and family. Lisa says UWE’s supportive environment has helped enable women to progress and be promoted to senior roles.

“To drive creativity and innovation we need divergent thinkers,” continues Lisa. “We should embrace all forms of diversity; approximately 35 per cent of entrepreneurs are dyslexic and so without neurodiversity in the workplace, the world would be a very different place.

“The advice I would give is: Be the best version of yourself, don’t change yourself to fit the role.”

Zoe Banks Gross
Community engagement manager at Knowle West Media Centre (KWMC)

At the root of Zoe’s varied career lies a passion for protecting the environment. She believes that society needs to focus more on STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics) as the arts are important for increasing our understanding of science, as well as involving people who might not be able to relate to any aspect of STEM.

Speaking about her role, Zoe says: “Besides working in new ways to increase digital skills throughout Bristol, my team and I are also working on digital health research, smart city and air quality monitoring projects.

“Connecting people to the process of collecting data and making sense of it is key to helping people improve their lives and our city. Recently scientific evidence has not received the attention it deserves.

On some of the challenges faced in the sector, Zoe continues: “The sector in general faces serious challenges relating to Brexit – many scientists I know have left the UK and gone to work in the EU or elsewhere already.

“Additionally, finding funding for research can be challenging – especially if you are interested in government pots, it seems like the sands shift really quickly as to what is “in” and often it has such an industry focus in the UK.

“As a woman of colour in STEM, I have seen quite a few changes over the years since I started working in the late 90s. Initially, I was often one of the only women or non-white faces, in the room during conferences – I felt I had to work extra hard to be taken seriously.

“My advice is study something you enjoy, but that has practical applications. Don’t be afraid to move and never say never.

“Bristol is an amazing space to try new things out – it also has University of Bristol and University of West of England, as well as some big players in industry, making it a good test bed for collaborative research.

“The wealth of creative industry in Bristol also makes it an attractive, stimulating environment to live and work in. KWMC is Bristol’s Living Lab, part of the European Network of Living Labs, which is a community based ‘enabler-driven’ living lab – we act as a broker between citizens and organisations and build networks citywide and internationally.”

Zoe adds: “Improved parental leave would result in better work life balance, regardless of gender, and we might have shorter work weeks. There is still an over-reliance on women to take time out of work and their careers to care for children.”

Rav Bumbra
Founder of Structur3dpeople, a tech recruiter and diversity specialist

Rav hung up her consultancy boots after a 20-year career in the tech industry to launch Structur3dpeople. She is passionate about improving diversity and gender representation in her chosen sector.

“I fell into technology accidentally,” admits Rav. “As a teenager, I envisaged a career in maths or science having completed a HND. My degree conversion at university was undersubscribed so I ended up studying a post graduate diploma in IT.

“Although I didn’t enjoy coding, I was excited about the tech industry and its capabilities, so I took an alternative route into a technology career by working in a sales role with a technology company and navigated my way through into consultancy. Over the years I became passionately driven to see more women see technology and leadership roles as suitable career.

“When applying for roles, women are found to underestimate their abilities and are therefore seen to lack confidence when compared to men. I spend a lot of time getting women to talk about their strengths in a structured manner, which helps to build confidence and see successful outcomes.

“We are seeing more exciting and dynamic startups making Bristol their home, having an impact on the city’s ability to incubate and accelerate new ideas from concept to reality.

“My advice would be: just go for it! There has never been a better time to be a ‘woman in tech’ there are so many opportunities and so much support available to help women succeed to the highest level.

“Gender and diverse perspectives would produce better services and products, which would solve problems for everyone. It would also be good for business too, research has shown that companies with 30 per cent female executives are likely to see greater financial performance.”

Laura Fogg-Rogers
Senior research fellow (science communication) and faculty business associate of engineering, design and mathematics at UWE Bristol

“I think it is really important for society for science and engineering to have a more equal balance of male and female scientists and engineers,” says Laura.

“Firstly, they are great careers to be in which make a difference to the world around you – and they pay well.

“Science and engineering are about solving problems which relate to how we live in the world. If they only relate to the experience of half the population, then they are not relevant to all, and they will produce solutions which do not suit all.

“Women make up 51 per cent of the general population, and yet sometimes you would genuinely think we are a minority group due to the way ‘women’s issues’ are described.

“It’s a problem of sheer numbers – until there are more women working in STEM fields, then it won’t seem normal to have women around.

“Yet companies which have more women on their boards perform better both in an equitable sense and for profit margins. Having a more equal workforce is therefore good for STEM as an industry as well as providing better science and engineering for society.”

Monika Radclyffe
Director of SETsquared Bristol

Speaking about improving representation in STEM, Monika says: “SETsquared Bristol supports 13 female founders in its cohort of 83 companies – this accounts for 15 per cent, which is a UK average of female representation in the tech sector.

“However, it’s worth highlighting that five out of 13 of our founders have got PhDs in science and engineering – a much higher proportion than among male founders, highlighting the fact that women often feel they need to prove themselves.

“To attract more female applicants, we have been working hard to first attract more female mentors – which are hard to find and don’t come forward by themselves like their male counterparts do. We realise that creating supportive environment with inspiring role models is very important to create a space where women can thrive.”

Read more: Examining the gender entrepreneurship gap


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