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#EmbraceEquity on International Women’s Day

Over the past decade, the global community has stepped up efforts to inspire and engage women and girls in science. In 2019, the UK reached the significant milestone of one million women working in science, technology, engineering and mathematics in the UK. 

Yet women and girls continue to face long-standing biases and gender stereotypes, steering them away from science related fields. Women only represent around 24% of the workforce.

At the National Centre for Atmospheric Science, our role as innovators and problem-solvers depends on diverse perspectives who can drive atmospheric science forward. And, our responsibility to bring science and society together necessitates a commitment to a more inclusive environment.

This year, International Women’s Day encourages us all to challenge gender stereotypes, call out discrimination, draw attention to bias, and seek out inclusion – and imagine a world that is diverse, equitable, and inclusive. 

We are sharing some testimonies from women role models within our science community that we’ve spoken to over the last few years, to celebrate women’s achievement and #EmbraceEquity. 

Dr Barbara Brooks, Scientific Services, Facilities and Training Director, explains what motivates her, and offers three pieces of advice to other women in science:

For me, science is about finding things out, problem solving, and making a difference. That’s what motivated me to choose science at every stage of study and career – from my A levels, undergraduate degree, PhD, and research positions. I knew I would be good enough, and I’ve just built from there. I think it’s important to have people around you who you can talk to, and share your ideas, achievements and obstacles with. Believe you’re good enough, provide challenge, and be brave!

Dr Linda Hirons, a research scientist, talks us through her love of maths, her mentors, and what it’s like to tread a path as a scientist while raising children:

I’ve always loved maths, and see science as a way to apply the maths I enjoy to the real world. It’s not necessarily unique to science, but I enjoy doing a role that has purpose. My work helps to improve African weather forecasts, which supports people’s livelihoods and ultimately saves lives. I remember seeking out conversations with Julia Slingo and Ellie Highwood about meteorology, and how to balance my work and personal life. I think it’s important to find a mentor – someone who has trodden a similar path before you – or establish informal mentorship amongst peers.

My line manager is extremely supportive, and I know they value my development and support my flexible working. There are challenges to working part time and taking maternity leave, as you have less time to produce outputs and sometimes miss out on key decisions. But, I’d say it’s really important to not compare yourself to others who are working full time and to find ways to fit your career aspirations around your family.

Kate Winfield, a former Environmental Data Scientist at the Centre for Environmental Data Analysis, tells us about her proudest moment while working with us:

I played an integral part in making climate data, used by international policymakers, more accessible. I’m part of a team that made sure the data behind the latest IPCC assessment was “gold standard” and freely available for anyone to re-use on the same day as report publication – a first for the IPCC. I worked closely with the technical support team at the IPCC, and set out guidelines that meant the data could be easily understood by non-experts. It’s now one of our most popular datasets! This was a big milestone in the open science dimension of IPCC, and I feel like it really demonstrated the importance of my role as a data scientist.

Dr Emal Rumi, a Senior Research & Development Engineer who works at the Chilbolton Observatory, shares insights from life as a woman in STEM:

I’m an electronics engineer, and have always been very curious about the world around me. At age 9, I was opening up light sockets at home to see how they worked, and investigating our family’s portable radio to see how the speakers were wired up. My parents were actually very supportive of this, and I see my mother and father as my main role models in life. They encouraged me, my siblings, and all our friends to think and to ask lots of questions and pursue achievements in the things that we were most interested in. For 20 years I’ve dedicated myself to engineering, my interest in space, satellite communications, and atmospheric science – and I’m extremely proud of that.

But for years and years I’ve been sitting on my own – the only woman in the room. Subconsciously feeling like I need to work three times harder than everyone else. I consider myself as a woman in engineering and science. Working in science as a woman is changing, I see it happening everyday – and the engineering sector could learn a lot from science to improve equality.

It’s difficult to move walls, but we have already achieved a lot and still need to keep going – concentrating on what is achievable. Women’s dreams in STEM can come true, just follow your passion, and support each other to create well-deserved opportunities. Always nurture diversity because different brains lead to better ideas!

Poppy Townsend, the Communications Manager at the Centre for Environmental Data Analysis describes the moment that inspired her to pursue her role in science:

I was working as an Environmental Data Scientist at the time, attending a Royal Meteorological Society conference where Sam Illingworth was the after dinner speaker. Sam’s an Associate Professor in Academic Practice, an editor, and widely recognised for his work as a science communicator, poet and game designer. Something just clicked – hearing Sam speak about poetry and the way it can create meaningful conversations between scientists and people made me appreciate science communication as its own area of expertise. I had no idea at the time that there were jobs in that field, but it really resonated, and led me to look for and complete a MSc Science Communication course. Five years later, I now lead the communications department at a national research facility!

Dr Emily Grace Norton, an Instrument Scientist, reflects on her role:

I think things are getting better for women in science, especially during the last decade. There are more opportunities for us to continue in science part time, and there are more women role models in research. Atmospheric science was dominated by men when I started out, and I found it quite daunting. I’ve come to realise that women often have different strengths to men in science, and we need to believe in ourselves more! But, it also needs to be recognised that part time workers can’t be expected to do a full time job.

As an instrument scientist, I feel like a small cog in the bigger scientific community wheel of scientific discovery. I am responsible for remote sensing observations of the winds during field experiments, and at NCAS’ observatory sites. My work underpins the latest weather, climate and air pollution research. That’s something I’m really proud of, and I enjoy talking to people about science and weather in my STEM ambassador role.

Judith Jeffery, an Instrument Scientist who worked for over 20 years at the Chilbolton Atmospheric Observatory, talked to us just before her retirement. Judith looks back over her science career:

As a child, I was fascinated by science from an early age. One of my favourite science books early on was my Ladybird Book of the Weather – which I actually found the other day and looked over fondly! My mum, a lab technician, always encouraged me with my science homework too.

I am a physicist, and have worked as an instrument scientist for most of my career. I started out working in the field of atomic energy, and then with health protection agencies to understand the transmission of UV radiation and its effects on people. I guess that was the start of atmospheric science for me – studying the sun’s rays!

Following that, I began working out how weather can affect radio communications. This is where my fascination and special interest in lidar began – a remote sensing method that uses light in the form of a pulsed laser, to help generate detailed and precise maps of the atmosphere and the Earth.

Today, my main responsibilities are to develop, operate, and manage data from lidar and a wide range of meteorological instruments that measure temperature, wind, rainfall, sunlight, and aerosols.

My interests and skills have morphed over time, but what’s stayed as a constant is how much enjoyment I get from practical problem-solving science, setting up reliable methods, and acquiring data that is transferable and relevant to people. That’s what really matters to me.

Just because of the technology, my work has always been out on a bit of a limb. I’ve always worked very independently, which suits me, but it does mean I have to tackle some big learning curves by myself, and it’s a challenge to be so self-supported. I’ve often craved more interaction and teamwork, but it’s incredibly rewarding to see my hard work pay off.

Thinking back, I remember how difficult it had been to get a high power lidar system to work one time, but finally having a breakthrough and getting some really good data from cirrus clouds – hair-like clouds found at high altitudes. Atmospheric scientists find them interesting because they’re really effective at trapping the infrared thermal emissions from the earth’s surface. I got home after work, and sat out in the garden, and stared up at the sky feeling incredibly smug – I’d used a scientific instrument that day to closely observe the very clouds I was gazing up at in that moment.

Dr Hannah Price, an Instrument Scientist at the FAAM Airborne Laboratory, describes her role:

I look after the meteorological instruments on the FAAM Airborne Laboratory – they’re the ones which measure temperature, humidity and pressure. I make sure the instruments work, fix them when they don’t, calibrate them and upgrade them if necessary.

My role involves writing code to analyse hundreds of flights’ worth of data, fixing and calibrating instruments in the lab, fitting instruments inside the nooks and crannies of the aircraft, working with collaborators, and lots in between.

When the aircraft flies, I often fly with it as part of an interdisciplinary team of scientists, engineers, pilots and cabin crew. Working at FAAM has taken me to all sorts of places, from Alaska to India. The point of it all is to make the very best measurement of the atmosphere in a challenging, but really exciting, environment.

I always wanted to have a career in something to do with the environment, and it turned out I got my best marks in physics. It seemed like physics could lead to an environment-related career so chose that for a degree and went from there.

Dr Wendy Garland tells us about her career, and what made her feel supported along the way:

I did a degree in physics, and then went on to work in atmospheric physics as a PhD student and postdoctoral researcher. My early career was spent in the field of airborne and ground-based observations and measurements, when there were hardly any women in the area to act as role models – but I do remember Lesley Gray and Claire Reeves being an inspiration to me.

I’m now a Senior Data Scientist at CEDA, and a lot has changed in 18 years! There are a lot more women with me at work, and I think the attitude around, and ability to, working flexibly helps make that possible. We are able to better manage life priorities and science struggles, together as a team. I work part time, and I’m a big advocate for balancing work and family life. I’ve come to realise that I’m a role model now.

Dr Harriett Richardson, Communications Manager for the National Centre for Atmospheric Science talks about smashing stereotypes and memorable moments:

I was the first in my family to attend university, and went on to do a PhD in environmental science. I enjoyed so much about science – the reading, writing, fieldwork, and discussions about the natural world – but realised I didn’t want to pursue a research career.

I saw a missing link in the way that knowledge was being communicated between scientists and the people affected by environmental change; and I felt a sense of urgency to bridge that gap and make science more accessible.

Over ten years I’ve created an alternative career in science, as a communicator, and have started to mentor other people to do the same.

Some of my memorable moments are: working with black women creatives, and school pupils in Bradford, to create a fictional story about air pollution; helping run a citizen science project that rescued historical weather observations and informed climate change and storm studies; and building a image library and series of commissioned articles to show the diversity of people in science.

You can join the International Women’s Day conversation online using #EmbraceEquity and #WomenInScience on social media, and explore ways to support women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.