International Women's Day 2018: Women in atmospheric science share their stories
To mark International Women’s Day, women across the National Centre for Atmospheric Science have given us an insight to their work and experiences in science, engineering, technology and maths (STEM) careers. Today (8 March 2018) we are celebrating their fantastic contributions to UK research and innovation, and hope to inspire more women to work in STEM, in particular, at the forefront of atmospheric science.
We spoke to women across the breadth of our organisation, in roles as diverse as data scientists, instrument scientists, training and communications managers, and PhD students. Their responses are inspiring and motivating for all of us, but also recognise the ongoing challenges faced by women in our field, and more generally.
Our scientists have highlighted how we can encourage more women to get involved in STEM subjects, suggesting the need for “strong and positive role models with a can-do attitude”, and that “diversity in all its aspects should be addressed.” To continue to pursue global scientific excellence, both men and women need to continue to break down barriers, and strive for a diverse and equal workforce.
This year, International Women’s Day is running a #PressforProgress campaign which will continue the positive movement of support and activism to secure parity between the genders.
Select a question below to see the answers.
Why did you choose a career in STEM?
I really enjoyed chemistry at school and had inspirational teachers - Mr Lally, Mr Gallagher and Dr Crooks. My strengths were in science and maths and it was a natural progression to do a degree in chemistry Ruth Purvis (Research Fellow)
I had a passion for weather since school, particularly for severe weather and so I wanted to study meteorology Lindsay Bennett (Instrument Scientist)
Science is interesting! You’re always learning so it’s an active career Freya Lumb (NCAS PhD Student)
I wanted to know why things happen the way they do! Barbara Brooks (Head of the Atmospheric Measurement Facility)
I studied physics, following in my parents footsteps. I was no doubt influenced and inspired by their interested from an early age - lots of visits to science museums, telescopes etc! Victoria Bennett (Head of Earth Observation at Centre for Environmental Data Analysis)
How did you get into your current role?
I stumbled across a graduate scheme as a data scientist, I showed up for the interview and never looked back. I’ve been able to shape my role towards communications - which means shouting about all the great work my colleagues and users do! Poppy Townsend (Communications Manager for the Centre for Environmental Data Analysis)
I did a PhD in atmospheric science before becoming a researcher. After several years I decided to broaden my skill set by moving out of academia into the real world. Having established the real world was over-rated I looked for opportunities at the University of Leeds. I do lots of teaching as a volunteer diving instructing and wanted to make use of these skills professionally so I jumped at the chance to work in education within atmospheric science! Louise Whitehouse (Education and Staff Development Manager)
I was a postdoctoral researcher at several universities between 1995 and 2002. I joined the National Centre for Atmospheric Science in 2002 as an instrument scientist, and successfully applied for the role as Head of Facility in 2013. Barbara Brooks
I did a chemistry degree, and then started a PhD in organic computer modelling. I really didn’t enjoy the subject and when my supervisor left to go into industry I decided to give it up. I found a PhD in atmospheric science and liked the idea of doing research that could really relate to real world issues, and the ability to get out of the laboratory. Following this PhD I worked for the Facility for Airborne Atmospheric Measurements, and now for NCAS in York. Ruth Purvis
What do you hope to achieve in your career?
To leave behind a facility that is a Gold Standard for quality of service, data standards and staff development. Barbara Brooks
I enjoy variety and don’t necessarily want to become an expert in one field, but to use my skills to tackle the immediate environmental issues that we face. Zoe Fleming (Research Fellow)
I really enjoy teaching and helping others to develop their skills. I look for opportunities to share my experiences with others, and gain further qualifications to teach more widely. Louise Whitehouse
Enjoyment is most important to me. I want to be able to say I enjoy my work, and see value in what I’m doing. Ruth Purvis
I hope to be involved in world-class research helping to understand the interactions of the earth’s atmosphere. Kate Winfield (Data Scientist)
Have you come across any challenges being a woman in science?
Ensuring a meritocracy where the voice, opinions and working conditions of the minorities are valued is an ongoing challenge. The physical sciences are not equal yet. Barbara Brooks
When you’re asked to represent your organisation at an event, I sometimes wonder if it’s because I’m good at my job or just because I’m female. I think it’s a self-esteem thing where women only feel like they’re asked they’re opinion because they are just that - a woman. Poppy Townsend
There are still some issues with women being taken seriously within STEM subjects, especially as a non-academic working in an academic environment. There can be a tendency to treat women in supporting roles as not sufficiently qualified to have an opinion, rather than valuing the experience they have. Louise Whitehouse
There are definitely less females in higher positions in atmospheric science. Personally I think it got more challenging when I had a family and my priorities changed. I now work part-time and mainly work with UK field sites. Ruth Purvis
Others shared their perspectives on the challenge of maternity, “I felt treated as less of a scientist after I had children, people would ask more about my family than my work”, and “returning to work after maternity leave has taken some adjustment - but I don’t think that’s unique to STEM careers.”
What do you enjoy most about your work?
Working with interesting people, being involved in cutting-edge science projects - each adding another piece to the big picture that is our understanding of the environment. Wendy Garland (Senior Data Scientist)
Being involved in outreach activities and public engagement - giving talks and running workshops with a variety of age groups and organisations. Also fieldwork - my role involves deploying radar across the country with a range of organisations and people. Lindsay Bennett
I love the diversity. Most of my time is spent coding, which is how I analyse my data, but about a third of my time is spent in the field, with the instruments and the people - which has a great atmosphere. Freya Lumb
Working with people who are both extremely talented and good company. Victoria Bennett
Everyday is different, I don’t know what data is going to come in next. I also enjoy helping out at public engagement events and talking about the fascinating science that is taking place. Kate Winfield
How can we encourage more women to get involved in STEM subjects and careers?
We need to make women aware of the massive range of opportunities available within STEM. There are so many pathways people can take which reflect their interests and skills, but initially people can be turned away from it because they didn’t engage with one small area. We also need to be proactive to ensure that everyone has access to flexibility in their work life to allow them to successfully mix work and family. Louise Whitehouse
By normalising being a scientist or engineer from an early age, and showing that anyone can be whatever they want to be! Poppy Townsend
Convince them they are doing a good job and their contribution is appreciated. Within teams, try to bring out the individual strengths in a person and not create a competitive environment. Think of a career as a series of stages rather than a long journey to the ideal position - women are often worried about how long it takes to get to an end goal, there are actually short steps with rewards along the way. Zoe Fleming
Female role models in STEM, and male role models in traditionally female dominated careers. Victoria Bennett
I think making science fun at school is key, this is especially true in primary schools. This way, by the time girls are going into secondary schools they want to pursue science. It’s important that all children see the careers in science that are available, not all scientists wear laboratory coats - some wear flying suits!” Ruth Purvis
By being strong positive role models for the next generation, promoting a can-do attitude, and taking part in outreach activities to show girls and boys what exciting careers are out there. We need to push back at society’s notion that all scientists wear white coats and play with test tubes - try googling ‘scientist’ and see what appears!” Wendy Garland
NCAS takes its lead from the NERC equality and diversity action plan aiming to level the playing field between genders, and access a breadth and depth of thinking to drive forward excellence in our science. We support International Women’s Day and hope to inspire people to pursue atmospheric science as an interest, a passion, or a career.