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#InspireInclusion 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 2022-23, the UK surpassed one million women working in science, technology, engineering and mathematics

Women and girls still continue to face long-standing biases and gender stereotypes, steering them away from science related fields – with women only representing around 26% of the STEM workforce.

At the National Centre for Atmospheric Science, our role as innovators and problem-solvers depends on diverse perspectives that can drive atmospheric science forward. 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 recognise the plurality and diversity of gender identities and the ongoing exclusion of the non-binary and trans community in STEM and society. We are sharing some testimonies from people who identify as women within our science community on International Women’s Day to #InspireInclusion.

Nicola Farmer, a Graduate Software Developer with the Centre for Environmental Data Analysis (CEDA), based in the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, explains the steps she took to work in science and why it is important to her:

I didn’t really plan to work in science, I always wanted to be an artist but struggled a lot with it at A-level and swapped to doing maths and science instead. I ended up really enjoying it and went to university to study Theoretical Physics. I come from a working class background and not many people around me went to university, and while I was at university I felt like I stood out quite a lot – especially as I was the only woman in some of my modules. But I was motivated to do well because I enjoyed learning. I particularly enjoyed learning how to code, so I knew I wanted a job in software. I worked hard to get summer placements and a year in industry to make sure I had plenty of experience.

I find science interesting and it’s important to me to work in an area that makes a difference. I get job satisfaction from knowing that the work I’m contributing to is helping towards an important cause, such as working on tools to help scientists access and store data for research in climate change and atmospheric science.

Nicola goes on to talk about the obstacles she faces as a woman in science, and what helps her – and others like her – to feel supported in the workplace:

It’s been really nice joining CEDA and seeing so many women in the workplace. It’s a very supportive environment where it’s easy to ask questions and go to people for help. Regular stand-up meetings and group meetings help me to feel like part of the team and make it easy for me to bring up any issues. My line manager also helps me feel supported. Whenever I’ve felt bad about something, like if I’ve been stuck on a problem for a while, he’s encouraging and is really helpful. I’m quite shy, so it can be a little intimidating if I’m the only woman in a meeting. When this happens I remind myself that my team treats me no differently to anyone else, and probably the only person who has noticed I’m the only woman is me.

Software is a little male-dominated, so sometimes I can get imposter syndrome and feel like I stand out and I’m not supposed to be there, but then I remind myself that everyone feels like this sometimes. If you’re facing any obstacles as a woman, speak out about it to someone. It’s quite isolating keeping it to yourself and it definitely feels better to have the support. Also, if you speak to another woman about it they have probably felt exactly the same, and sometimes just knowing you’re not the only one feeling that way can really help.

Barbara Brooks, the Scientific Services & Facilities Director at the National Centre for Atmospheric Science, based at the University of Leeds, outlines the steps she made to get into science and her experience of working in a research environment: 

At school maths and science was what I was good at. I’ve always been interested in the “why” and the “how” – how does that work, why does that happen when I do this. I was naturally curious, and science was what fed that. So I followed the usual choices for O and A level (yes I am that old!!) and ended up doing a Physics degree. I then found myself doing a PhD in Condensed Matter Physics, followed by post doctoral positions.

Finally, I ended up in Leeds and then I joined NCAS. Yes there were barriers – mostly around challenging the role and expectations for female scientists in atmospheric sciences who have a hands-on practical approach to their research. I’m still curious about science, all science, and it keeps me engaged and my mind active. It allows me to relate to the world and to contribute to understanding that benefits wider society.

On advice for other women in science, Barbara adds:

I feel supported by my friends, both in the workplace and outside, and my family. Having people outside of the workplace to whom I can have a rant is important. My advice is to be brave. Have your principles, stick to them and don’t be afraid to challenge. It’s hard, and the scales are still stacked against us but they are beginning to move. We need to work together to address the ongoing issues, especially with funders.

Jacqui Hamilton, the Science Director at the National Centre for Atmospheric Science, based at the University of York, explains what motivates her and one of her proudest moments:

I wasn’t very interested in science until I had a brilliant Chemistry teacher at school. He was really supportive and inspired me to follow my dream to be a forensic scientist. Clearly this dream evolved with time, but he gave the shy, uncertain 16 year old me the confidence to apply to university. I love the challenge of trying to solve really difficult and complex problems. I started university with the goal of being a forensic chemist, and I never thought I would end up where I am now.

After my degree, I really wanted to do a PhD in analytical chemistry and the one I found most interesting involved studying the composition of volatile organic compounds in the atmosphere using a technique called two-dimensional gas chromatography. Both forensic chemistry and atmospheric chemistry have a lot of similarities in the methodologies and techniques used, and once I started my PhD, I knew that I had found my speciality area.

Working in atmospheric science, and environmental science more broadly, is really important to me and I want to do a job where I feel I can contribute to a healthier society. I also really enjoy working with the students in my group and seeing them develop their research careers and go on to do exciting jobs. In 2009, I won the Desty Award for Innovation in Separation Science. The winner gets to give a lecture at the Royal Institution. As a kid, I used to watch the Christmas Lectures with my dad and getting to give a talk in that very lecture theatre was a real highlight for me.

Jacqui talks about part time working, caring responsibilities, and work life balance:

One difficulty is the impact of having children on your career. I took two extended periods of maternity leave and then worked part time for 10 years. Coming back after my first child was really difficult. Research moves fast and it doesn’t take long before you feel like you have been left behind. I work in a great department in York and they really listened and acted on feedback about how difficult this process was. When I came back from my second child, new policies meant I could have a term of research leave, which meant I could really concentrate on getting back up to speed. Being able to work part-time was really important for me after having my children and being supported to do this was so helpful. Within my own department, it no longer seems like an unusual thing to do, and now there are many staff who work part-time for caring responsibilities.

Working part-time can come with many difficulties. In academia and research roles, there is a lot of emphasis on your outputs. Working part-time can mean fewer publications, less chances to go to conferences or give invited talks, and a lack of flexibility in your working schedule. It is vital that universities take these issues into account when reviewing promotion applications. Maintaining a good work life balance is really important. One thing it took me a long time to come to terms with, was that working part time meant I couldn’t do as much as my full time colleagues. I ended up struggling with my mental health and burning out. Eventually I learnt how to say no and accepted that I could still do exciting science and shut off at the end of the day.

Ioana Colfescu, a senior scientist at the National Centre for Atmospheric Science with a focus on digital atmosphere, describes her journey in research:

The first step was studying mathematics and loving it since elementary school. My parents and maths teacher in elementary school played a huge role in motivating me. I planned to be a maths teacher, but things went differently. I very much enjoy solving problems and learning. I also love to check facts, and I enjoy contradicting people and doing it properly with scientific arguments. I also wanted to be like some people I admired, and I imagined doing what those people admired would make me a bit more like them. A big step came with my PhD and with the fact that I had a genuinely extraordinary PhD supervisor who inspired me so much.

Last is … NCAS! In NCAS, I have been supported and encouraged to explore so many facets of delivering science. Adapting to working in different environments and countries is hard, not only in science but in any realm and for anyone. Yet, eventually, that taught me to be flexible and to embrace diversity in a way I am now very grateful for having learned. Other barriers have included availability of the right infrastructure, timings, and finding the right people to work with.

Ioana tells us about her inspirations and role models:

My role models cover an extensive range of fields and countries. What inspires me is not the people who are amazingly good at their jobs but those who are also kind to others and are guiding others to grow. I love people who can use their skills to bring out the best in others. I think it varies depending on the career stage but for me right now, success means someone enjoying their work, and that comes equally from delivering excellent science but also making others feel they enjoy working with them; especially in the case of more junior colleagues or students – just someone making them see what they are capable to achieve.

I feel supported when I am trusted and allowed to do my job and to use my expertise; equally, when I get the chance to make mistakes and get feedback on how to improve. It is a fundamental part of growing as a scientist.

Ioana opens up about obstacles, and offers advice to other women in science:

As a woman, one of the most disappointing aspects for me is when I meet other women – especially in senior roles – not supporting more junior women in science. We are in a very competitive field and as a woman in science, there’s a lot of pressure and because of that sometimes attitudes such as ‘I got to where I am and it was so hard for me so why should I help another woman to have things any different?’ can appear. I experienced and witnessed this situation unfortunately much more often than we are willing to admit or speak of. My advice is to work with various people, try new ideas, mix, explore, and keep your mind flexible and open and at the same time be humble and find the time to help others grow too.

Lisa Banton, Head of People, Equality, Diversity and Inclusion, and Workforce Development at the National Centre for Atmospheric Science, based at the University of Leeds, outlines why working in science is important to her:

Supporting science through supporting scientists is frequently about problem solving. I enjoy the challenge of meeting the needs of the individual and the organisation through good quality research, analysis, communication and effective and pragmatic solutions. Although this is my first time working in science it will hopefully be a long term partnership. I had not planned to work in science. I am not a scientist. I do not have a background in research or in the academic sector but I am proud to be working at NCAS in a leadership role.

My motivation for my Operations role is to support science and in particular support colleagues from minority groups, which includes colleagues who identify as women in science, or with particular challenges, to fulfil their career goals and manage their work-life balance. In my previous roles at other organisations I feel that there have been structural and cultural barriers to my success, and I aim to ensure that NCAS is an inclusive and supportive place to work. At a time when lots of organisations are cutting back on their diversity and inclusion resources, I’m proud to be Head of People at NCAS.

Lisa shares her advice, and her sources of inspiration and support:

Women everywhere constantly inspire me. But being part of a minority group is a challenge, even from a position of relative privilege. Being assertive takes courage and energy. Asking for support does not diminish your achievements! Reach out, widen your networks, identify allies of all kinds.

Go for opportunities even if you think you are not ready. An example would be that I have just received confirmation of a grade promotion! This is obviously great news but I felt a bit hesitant about applying after only 12 months in post.

Support comes in the form of feeling listened to, and being part of a team at a local and organisation wide level. Having a line manager who values and respects my expertise is really important, as is having flexibility in terms of hours and working from home.

Sadie Bartholomew, a computational scientist based at the University of Reading, shares what she loves about her role and where she finds role models:

One aspect I really love about my job is the many groups and communities I feel part of in which there are numerous fantastic role models, in the form of both inspirational women and of those who practice universal respect and equity and champion diversity. Not only can I easily find such role models in my sub-group, NCAS-CMS, the wider NCAS organisation, and my institution, the University of Reading (departmentally and as a whole), but I also feel strong connection to, and inclusion in, external general communities such as the (Society of) Research Software Engineering community and the field comprising those working in computing/informatics for earth science and aligned research, where many women and allies are doing fantastic work and providing much inspiration to all. There are too many to pick out any individual!