Not just a woman in science: my journey
Freya describes her journey from working class roots to obtaining a doctorate in ocean science and working at the Met Office, and why she is passionate in improving diversity in science through a focus on inclusion.
I am Freya, a climate scientist at the Met Office working on compound events and risk to UK sectors (if you are interested in learning more see my details of a recent webinar here and a recently Tweeted video here for the really short version)! I’m writing this as a woman in science and as a co-founder of the Women in Climate network, which is a support network for women, men and non-binary people at the University of Exeter and Met Office as they progress through their careers, and that helps give scientists, particularly from underrepresented groups, knowledge and skills that will help them succeed in their careers. I see my diversity and climate work as very much interlinked. I work as a climate scientist because I am passionate about helping people to stay safe and thrive, and I think that the changes required to prevent damage to life and economies from high levels of global warming may require large scale adaptation that is likely only to be achieved with cultural change and tackling inequality in our global and local societies (read more about the connection between gender and climate change here). I hope to make some small contribution to this by helping promote women in science and providing events that benefit all.
Although I’m very concerned about the lack of women scientists at senior level still in science and at the Met Office, on a personal level, there are other aspects about me that make me feel more unusual in the Met Office such as identifying as queer (an umbrella term for sexual/gender minorities who are not heterosexual or cisgender) and that I have never wanted to get married nor have children. Many queer people have historically often felt unable to be openly queer at work, and so not being worried about being treated differently because of this at the Met Office is a privilege many in this world still don’t have. These are invisible characteristics that do not impact my work, and if I didn’t tell you, you simply wouldn’t know about them. However, we live in a world where our perceived gender, as well as many other visible factors, influences how people are treated and therefore how they tend to behave. Diversity and inclusion create a positive work culture, and this is linked to productivity and happiness at work. Our science will be better when it is diverse and inclusive of both visible and invisible characteristics at both junior and senior levels. The evidence shows that it is important for aspiring junior colleagues to see role models that help them persevere to senior positions, so it is important to increase gender diversity across senior levels of the organisation as well as other metrics of diversity such as racial and socio-economic background.
Let’s acknowledge our privilege
Science is full of very intelligent and skilled scientists and we all have privilege of some kind. In my case, being white in the area I grew up (the Isle of Man), Southampton and Devon, so I visibly ‘fit in’ to British rural life in Devon where I currently live. I am physically well, apart from being somewhat curvy in a western culture where beauty standards frequently make women feel inferior. I have had the chance to enjoy (and afford!) adventuring from the Three Peaks in the UK, to diving in Zanzibar and trekking in South America after a research cruise to Antarctica. I come from a supportive family where education was valued and where I faced neither discouragement nor excess pressure during my education. I gained confidence during my teenage years as I played music, performed in school plays, and entered public speaking competitions locally – my busy life started young! My parents and the Isle of Man Government helped fund my undergraduate education and my doctorate was funded by the University of Southampton and National Oceanography Centre. My parents are supportive of my career and help me out frequently in many ways, without suggesting I should be doing something that pays more or settling down and having a family ‘before it’s too late’. I am absolutely privileged in ways that many people are not, and I am very grateful for that.
From working class to highly educated
I come from a working-class background, with my family earning in total around £30,000 per year (around the UK median household income in 2019) during my teenage years as my parents ran a small dry-cleaning shop. We certainly were not poor, but I received a standard UK non-selective mixed-gender state school education, which was in line with family values. During sixth form, I took the unusual path of applying to Cambridge, rather than the northern England universities where most of my peers went. I was the only person in my year at school to apply to Oxbridge. I discovered when I started studying Mathematics at King’s College Cambridge that my school was not considered a particularly good school, and anecdotally I have frequently found my colleagues in science to come from significantly more privileged financial backgrounds and/or to have parents with higher status professions. Ultimately, feeling that I did not fit in there (perhaps the first time I experienced the imposter phenomena), together with experiencing depression and a desire to change to a more applied science subject, led me to discontinuing that course after 1 term.
According to Wikipedia, the two highest ranked women scientists in the Met Office in recent years, Julia Slingo and Penny Endersby, had private educations. A colleague has revealed to me that going to all-girls schools can have disadvantages, such as a heightened level of distraction at university(!), but there does seem to be an innate confidence that is instilled by excellent educations. I imagine that at an all-girls school there is a very different atmosphere around taking science at A-Level; for example, my experience of physics and chemistry was of being 1 of 2 or 3 girls in the class. My well-meaning non-selective state school tried to ask me not to include on my UCAS application that I had self-taught myself GCSE Mathematics in a year, something that the school had encouraged me to do, lest it reflect badly on the school. Always tenacious, I respectfully declined to remove evidence of my abilities from my application, but this is just one example of how the experience of non-selective state schools can often dent rather than increase the confidence and resilience of students. In addition, as women, we are not typically encouraged to self-promote (leading to less women applying for progression or requesting pay rises relative to men). As academically excellent students, we often spent time at state school keeping out of sight and mind of bullies, and I certainly experienced mixed teaching and career advice. Despite achieving highly across the board, I always remember the take-away from a school career interview being a suggestion that I study music because I seemed to enjoy it. Yes, I did, but I found the prospect of a musical career quite unstable financially; ironically, my decision to become a research scientist meant I took up my first permanent job (my current one) age 30! I felt music was more of a hobby whereas I excelled at many academic subjects, achieving 9 A* and 2 A GCSEs. I hate to think that other talented young women scientists might still be being encouraged away from, rather than into, STEM subjects.
My perspective as a woman in a science
As a generalisation, men and women are socialised differently in our society. Women tend to exhibit a lack of confidence, resilience and competitive nature relative to men in the workplace which is likely to be a factor in why we see fewer women in senior positions. If you don’t believe this, talk to women close to you about their lived experiences, which may range from instances of overt sexual harassment or long-term abuse to much smaller daily ‘microaggressions’ which wear people down over time (#metoo movement). The power imbalances in science and academia often lead to harassers remaining in science when their victims leave, and (as with other instances of abuse or harassment in society) documented cases of harassment may take years to come to light (recommended watch: Picture a Scientist). More typical examples of these for women range from being unable to give a clear ‘no’ to advances from men because of fear of aggressively objectifying responses, the constant niggling at being asked their marital status for completely irrelevant things, or how they often feel like they end up with an excessive burden of household chores compared to the men they live with. Implicit and explicit biases exist across the media and in children’s books and toys; one of my research scientist colleagues was shocked when her children’s classmates guessed that she worked as a secretary. These biases are general features of life as well as work (though they may be even more likely in a male-dominated work culture). We are human, and we all have biases (have you done unconscious bias training or an IAT test?), objective as our science might be. Even if you see a woman apparently shrugging off microaggressions, she is likely to be internally affected more deeply; as women, we have often been consciously or subconsciously taught that we much not appear over-emotional if we want to succeed. People will also experience microaggressions due to race, disability and other visible characteristics, and I suspect some of our male scientists, especially those who attended state schools, faced bullying due to being labelled a ‘geek’ or ‘nerd’ at school. We all have privilege in some areas, and a lack of it in others; we are all different.
I’ve always been relatively confident in myself and academically very competitive, and I feel sure this has helped me get where I am today, and I have also learnt tools through my twenties about how to be more assertive in my career and increase my resilience to failure. It has felt a little like doing catch up of skills I was never taught at school. I can only imagine how much harder many other people find this path, especially visible minorities and those from lower socio-economic backgrounds, when they might have additional obstacles that they face such as having to care for family members or not having financially or emotionally supportive family. Many schools still struggle to provide the academic stretch that gifted students really need, setting them off at a disadvantage before university.
How do I think we should work to increase diversity in science?
Like many people, I do periodically experience depression and anxiety, and I find that when I do, life is so much harder. There has been a fantastic openness in my workplace around wellbeing since the pandemic started, which is beginning to change the stigma people feel around discussing mental health and people seem keen to discuss and listen to the different challenges people are facing. Increasing our focus on and celebrating our different personalities, skills and experiences will help improve inclusivity, but I believe it will also make for better teams in the workplace. However, we must not forget that under-represented groups face systemic biases, and positive action can help improve action. So, we can also be proactive by mentoring and sponsoring promising young talent from under-represented groups.
Being a woman may have made my path here somewhat more difficult than if I had been a man because of the inherent gender biases that exist throughout society and that make women, non-binary and men who don’t fit their ‘stereotype’ often feel anything from patronised to outright harassed. We all have unconscious biases, and this is still resulting in biases against women in job applications. We need to keep working as individuals and as organisations to keep challenging ourselves on potential bias around our processes, such as hiring and progression, our structure and its power dynamics, and helping aspiring women fulfil their career aims through providing coaching and mentoring to give them the skills and confidence they need. Ultimately, we need to listen and act on what our people tell us about the biases inherent in our language, processes and structure and try to make them more inclusive without defensiveness. Nobody is perfect, and we all make mistakes, but we can all keep trying to be more inclusive.
However, by many diversity metrics, the people in science, particularly in the south west of England, do not represent our society either at the regional, national, or global level and we need to listen beyond our organisations. My relatively underprivileged background compared to many I’ve met in science is something that has surprised and concerned me, because so many people across the UK will have had a more difficult education experience than me and come from much poorer backgrounds. They lack the aspiration and encouragement to get to Russell Group universities, let alone dream of working at a world leading organisation such as the Met Office. I am an advocate of influencing young people from an early age, which we do at the Met Office through our STEM Ambassador programme and our Science Camps. In 2018 I volunteered for the Brilliant Club, an initiative where I worked with students from a local underprivileged school over 6 weeks on a specialist science subject, hopefully giving me enough time with them to have some meaningful impact. Diversity work and outreach take a huge amount of time and energy and it is important that this is recognised and valued when scientists apply for more senior roles.
Finally, there are many different factors contributing to each of our experiences, and therefore consideration of intersectionality is very important (definition: ‘the interconnected nature of social categorizations such as race, class, and gender as they apply to a given individual or group, regarded as creating overlapping and interdependent systems of discrimination or disadvantage’). We should not compare different types of potential disadvantage but consider that people’s experiences may be affected by different types simultaneously and that people will take away different experiences from the same events. We need to strive for inclusion to enable both people who already work in science and those who might enter to feel comfortable at work and ensuring that we not just hire and retain, but see promising talent thrive in the world of science.