‘I know women are underrepresented’: Lancaster Alumna on being a successful woman in STEM

‘It shouldn’t matter that I’m a woman. I am treated with respect because I am an engineer’

Gender inequality in STEM is hardly a secret. In fact, it is well established that women are relatively outnumbered compared to men in both the educational and professional sectors of STEM.

To shed some light on life as a working woman in STEM, the Lancaster Tab caught up with Lancaster Graduate Jean Morris, an award-winning engineer at the National Physical Laboratory. At the age of 25, Jean has enjoyed roaring success in the world of STEM, and it all began during her time at Lancaster.

The course was ‘male-dominated’ with around ’10 out of 100 being girls’

During her time as an undergraduate at Lancaster – studying Natural Science in first year, then transferring to Physics – Jean assures she never felt her gender held her back. She admits that the course was “male-dominated”, with around “ten out of 100 being girls”, but this did not impact her studying or her opportunities to gain experience. She felt she was treated the same as everyone else on the course.

After being inspired by the enthusiasm and passion of her lecturers (again, mostly male-dominated), Jean decided on practical lab work as her specialism, stating that she loves the process of: “you think it, and then you make it.”

Throughout her studies, she felt her lecturers were not only impressive in their specialisms but were exceptional in going above and beyond in support of their students. Then, in the summer of her third year, Jean undertook a practical internship at Lancaster in association with CERN. After gaining this experience, she began the application process for jobs in STEM.

‘My opinions come from me as an engineer, not as a woman’

For Jean, the process of finding a job was based on her experience and enthusiasm, not on her gender. “My opinions come from me as an engineer, not as a woman”, Jean said, and she felt this was reflected in her search for a grad scheme. After being accepted onto the Airbus scheme as a Space Systems Engineer, Jean found that in the cohort of 50, female representation was around a fifth.

In her reflection of this gender difference, Jean suggested that this was a “fair representation of the educational sector of STEM.” She explained: “Most meetings, I was the only woman. But there is only so much companies can do. If not enough women study STEM, that will be reflected in the recruitment figures.”

After completing her two-year scheme doing pretty much everything Airbus had to offer – with a six-month placement in Munich –  Jean moved to London and began working for the National Physical Laboratory. “I remember walking around the lab […] it was really cool! They’re doing stuff that matters.”

Jean expressed that this was not only in their ground-breaking research and manufacturing. No longer was Jean the only woman in meetings, and she finds that NPL is “really active in pushing for female representation.”

When walking into a room, I’d think, am I going to be treated differently?

Jean admits that sometimes she doubts herself “because I know women are underrepresented”, but this has not affected her success at NPL. In fact, Jean recently led a team in developing a cost-effective ventilator in under three months, with the hopes of helping during the Covid-19 crisis. For such an achievement, Jean and her team have received the Royal Academy of Engineering President’s Special Award for Pandemic Service, the NPL Value Award and delivered public talks about “Engineering in Crisis” for the governmental BEIS department.

It is clear with this engineering triumph that Jean had no reason to doubt herself, yet she still admits that the low representation of women in STEM jobs makes her wary. “When walking into a room, I’d think, am I going to be treated differently?” or in leading her team, she would think: “How am I coming across?”

Throughout her time in STEM, Jean hasn’t felt limited by being a woman in STEM – within the working environment, she identifies as an engineer – yet the hint of unconscious doubt suggests that more can be done for women in STEM. The question is: What?

‘There is sometimes a misconception that only ‘strong women’ can get into STEM’

Jean feels that the representation of women in STEM jobs is reflective of the number of women studying STEM subjects – and who can argue with that? To help in the nationwide boost for more female representation, Jean has been getting involved in lots of talks. Diverting from interviews for articles (apart from this one, of course), Jean has been delivering talks in schools in the hopes to get girls interested in STEM early on. Undoubtedly her success story is a good source for inspiration, but Jean feels the most important part in the encouragement for more female representation in STEM is the following:

“There is sometimes a misconception that only ‘strong women’ can get into STEM. That’s incorrect. Everyone should be able to go into STEM, not just strong women!”

It’s tough to argue with that one.

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