Pressing for progress on International Women’s Day
Meet the academics
Kerstine Lawley studied for a degree in international tourism management at Leeds Beckett University. She then worked in various HR roles including Head of HR at TUI, the world's largest tour operator. She is now programme leader for BSc International Tourism Management, and Director of Professional Development for Tourism and Events at the University of Surrey.
Melaine Coward trained as a nurse at King's College Hospital London, specialising in haemato-oncology. She then moved to the Royal Marsden Hospital where she undertook a degree in cancer nursing. In 2001 she joined the University of Surrey and became Head of the School of Health Sciences in 2016.
Dr Suze Kundu studied Chemistry at University College London. She also studied for an MSc in Analytical Chemistry and a PhD in Materials Nanochemistry, and then completed a post-doctorate with a PGCE at Imperial College London. Suze now works in the University of Surrey's Department of Chemical and Process Engineering. Suze is also a science communicator, delivering live shows and demo lectures, and appearing on TV and radio, and is a science writer for Forbes magazine.
1. In your education or early career did you have a female role model who inspired or supported you?
Melaine: Whilst undertaking my A-levels I volunteered at a local hospital. A staff nurse there demonstrated the values and attributes of nursing to me and they have stuck with me ever since. In my time at the Royal Marsden, I worked with a manager who influenced me to be a strong leader and I believe this is who I am today. In the University setting I have had a few role models, although my main influencers remain in clinical practice, particularly the Directors of Nursing who I work closely with.
Kerstine: In my early career I worked with several senior customer-facing women who had mastered the art of exceptional customer service. This taught me a lot about this skill which is essential in our industry. Currently a brilliant female professor is my mentor, who I use a lot for guidance and support. I think being the eldest of a large family has always meant I have never been scared of challenge, and this is a trait I get from my Mum.
Suze: My Mum was a massive influence on my career. She was the first woman in her family to get a degree, something my Grandma was very insistent on her getting, so I think both my Grandma and my Mum were pretty pleased when I showcased a flair for academia. Outside of that though, my main inspirations have actually been men! Mr McVicar, my school Chemistry teacher, was great. Following that, my PhD supervisor, Professor Ivan Parkin at UCL was very encouraging and supportive, especially when I first started to encounter gender bias in academia, and Professor Mark Miodownik at UCL has also been a very strong role model and champion for me. I am so grateful to be encouraged by men who believe that it is about talent and not about gender. I am also always inspired by my former colleagues at Imperial College London, Professor Mary Ryan and Professor Molly Stevens for both forging such strong careers in materials and showcasing that it is possible to be successful in both work and life, and still be utterly delightful human beings!
2. What has been your experience as a woman in your field of work?
Kerstine: As a junior academic at the University of Surrey I have loved the experiences that have been offered to me, and I hope I am a positive role model to our students. The independence and learning opportunities given to me, and the ability to pass on my experiences to the next generation of industry leaders, is very inspiring and rewarding.
Suze: It has been mixed, in all honesty. As I went to a girls’ school, I was lucky that subjects were never gendered. As UCL is such a forward-thinking university, I never felt like I should not have been studying chemistry. Academia posed a new challenge. It was actually as a postgraduate that I first experienced gender discrimination, at a conference where I was presenting my first paper. Furthermore, my move from science into engineering put the acceptance of women as just fellow engineers a few paces back once more. Still, I have hope for engineering as a profession. There are many campaigns aimed at redressing the gender balance, but as it is ingrained in culture it will take a lot of work for this to be seen as normal and no longer an issue.
Melaine: At a national level in my field, women are strong. More locally it can at times be difficult in my field as the focus of our School differs from many others in the University. I therefore feel that I have to have a strong voice to ensure that we are understood for our differences, but also to share and celebrate our achievements.
3. How has your field of work moved forward towards gender parity since the start of your career?
Suze: I think that chemistry and physics are doing good things, and positive changes are evidenced by things like more Fellows of the Royal Society being women, more female Christmas Lecturers at the Royal Institution, more women becoming presidents of the key learned societies of engineering and physical sciences, and more women vice-chancellors. However, it still has a long way to go, especially in engineering. I think that to fully change a profession, some long-held views need to literally die off with an older generation and the next generation need to continue to push for this change until it is achieved.
Kerstine: I am lucky as I have had very strong role models in my School at the University. More experienced lecturers and senior female staff have paved the way for me to follow in terms of a successful university career. What has been groundbreaking since I joined are the positive teaching fellow alignments with other lecturers and also the new teaching fellow career path which has opened up a career for me and other teaching fellows.
Melaine: Gender parity in my field is really the opposite as there are more women in healthcare than men. Male leaders are of course there but within the University this is outside of my own speciality.
4. What have you personally done to progress gender parity in your field?
Kerstine: I became a full member of our School’s Athena Swan submission. This was a useful insight into how as an establishment we can be more considerate with recruitment and promotion opportunities to support women better. Attending the Aurora programme was also very beneficial. This Leadership Foundation for Higher Education (LFHE) programme is a women-only course that suggest practical steps on academic voice and impact, and gave me the springboard to apply for internal promotion.
Melaine: I have worked hard to raise my own profile both within and outside the University. I think it is important for a female leader to represent Surrey at a national level and therefore I work hard to ensure that I have this level of influence.
Suze: As the saying goes, you can’t be what you can’t see. I speak at many schools and do a lot of science communication on TV, radio and through science writing, which I think increases visibility of women in STEM. I think it is fair to say that I don’t fit into your usual academic stereotype, which is something that used to make me feel inferior but that I have now come around to accepting and embracing. I have also had the privilege of being asked to speak at some very high profile events, such as the annual Ada Lovelace Day Live event, and was involved in my former Department’s Athena SWAN submission.
5. What do you feel people can do to support the push for gender equality?
Kerstine: Personally I think people should overcome misperceptions and stereotypes of women (and men) and especially those with child caring responsibilities. The recent report from the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) showed that employer’s attitudes are still incredibly old fashioned towards women and family responsibilities. I manage a successful career and family life now and like to challenge perceptions of this.
Suze: One thing is to admit that it is an issue. We need more proactivity. Women shouldn’t be the ones pointing out that they are underrepresented. It should be down to management, who are often still mostly made up of men, trying to find out why this is and trying to address the imbalance. Only then will change actually happen.
Another thing is that people need to feel confident and safe enough in their work and social situations to be able to call out inappropriate behaviour if and when it happens. Often things are said with no intent to cause offence, but left unchallenged these things can build up into harassment and discrimination that hides under the banner of ‘banter’. Being open and honest when people speak inappropriately should hopefully promote discussion about why it was inappropriate, and hopefully everyone will understand a little more about the issue and be more considerate in the future.
Melaine: It’s really important to work hard and ensure that you get involved. I think it doesn’t really matter how hard I have to work, I need to ensure that I get Surrey’s name out there and represent us well! As a woman, a healthcare professional and a leader I have a responsibility to the organisation, my profession and myself.
6. In your opinion, why is representation important?
Suze: If we don’t have a diverse workforce, we are not able to harvest a range of ways of solving a problem or understanding who we are working with to fix this problem. We need a diverse workforce to ensure the fastest rate of progress. If we are missing 50 per cent of a population because we are not encouraging women to study and work in STEM, we are missing out on half of the brilliant ideas that we could be getting! Furthermore, a diverse workforce makes the most of everyone’s strengths and minimises weaknesses, because people approach a challenge differently and have very different skillsets. Diversity in a workforce also makes for a happier workforce – studies have shown this, so that is actual science!
Melaine: If we are not in it and have an opinion we cannot challenge outcomes. I am a real believer that we must be involved and ensure that our voices are heard.
Kerstine: I think that there needs to be a systemic review of processes (in recruitment and promotion for example) to enable women to progress further. It is acknowledged that women often have extensive external responsibilities, therefore more needs to be done internally to help women succeed.
7. What advice do you have for female students who want to pursue a career in your field of work?
Melaine: My advice is what I tell them all of the time, you can do it if you believe in yourself. They have been selected to come to Surrey, we are tough in health sciences so they have climbed a massive hurdle just by being here. If you truly enjoy what you do and believe it is worthwhile you will have the energy to keep achieving. I always have a five-year plan, so far I’ve managed to achieve things ahead of my plan, that just gives me a boost to keep going!
Kerstine: Absolutely go for it. The tourism, hospitality and events industries will bring you amazing experiences and also you will meet likeminded people. These industries also offer great life experiences, lifelong friendships and interesting careers.
Suze: To quote a famous sports brand: Just do it! Find people that you can relate to, that are either like you or that inspire you. The world is a tiny place these days. If you admire someone’s work, send them a tweet! Engage with them in social media conversation. Ask them for advice. Connect with existing networks – for me that would be the Ada Lovelace Day network, WES, WISE, the IET, the Royal Society of Chemistry, the RAEng, the Institute of Physics, and more! All of these organisations do good things by connecting people in the same situation, but also by providing toolkits on how to press for progress in gender equality, and by holding events that don’t just discuss the issues, but also create action points from them. The Royal Institution and the Royal Society both run amazing events where inspiring speakers are delivering lectures on their work. Go to these if you can, and find your next top role model.
8. Finally, how will you be ‘pressing for progress’ this International Women’s Day?
Kerstine: By being a positive role model, by promoting the day by any means possible, and by reminding our students how far we have come but how far we have to go.
Melaine: I’ll be ensuring that as a School we remember who we are, remind our students and congratulate our staff on what a tremendous job we do. I’m not sure that the gender differentiation is important for that day, it’s more about the team and their efforts as a collective, both staff and students.
Suze: I will be doing what I do best – being me! This year I am event-free, having spoken at many IWD events in the last few years, so I’ll be enjoying seeing others delivering amazing talks, running perception-changing outreach activities, and generally being superstars, all from the comfort of my Twitter feed!