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3 minute read

Alisya is a physicist; she has worked at NPL for 10 years and held several positions in numerous teams. When she joined there weren’t that many women scientists and Alisya felt she had to work hard to evidence her skills, showcase her experience and challenge stereotypes. Since then, she has seen changes at NPL with more women in the organisation, particularly in leadership positions, but she is still aware that her current team lacks gender diversity. She often gets asked to represent the group and worries she is asked because of her gender.

She wants to establish herself as an internationally leading researcher and aspires to lead a large international research collaboration working with other similar organisations. A senior colleague told her she “wasn’t ready”, she felt demoralised and demotivated. In an unconscious bias training course, the impact of bias on women in leadership roles was raised, Alisya now wonders if this influenced the comment. She raised her aspirations more formally with her Group Leader; they discussed and agreed she doesn’t have all the skills required yet and they talked about what she might need to realise that goal. Alisya raises her concerns about the frequency of requests to represent the group and how it pulls her away from these goals. The Group Leader recognised Alisya’s concerns and is now developing a new approach.

For a long time I felt that I would never be able to do enough to get promoted, there was a period where I found it hard to build up my reputation and to get the evidence that I needed to support my case. There were lots of different reasons for this, one was that my line manager changed several times, each one seemed to have a different take on where I was at and what I needed to do. One said I needed to focus on presenting to customers, while another said I needed to do more networking and raise my profile.

As each new line manager found holes in my experience, I started to doubt myself. After a few years of what felt like moving goal posts, I gave up on promotion for a while, as I genuinely believed I just wasn’t good enough. When others started to say “have you considered going for promotion?” it helped me with my confidence, so I applied and was successful. That was a few years ago, now I feel ready to take the next step.

I’m now looking to move towards new goals in my career, I thought I was in a really good place and had been doing all the right things, so was disheartened when others didn’t agree. It took me right back to my previous experiences and I felt like history was repeating. Recently my Science Area Leader has changed, and I have found it hard to build my scientific credibility with them. I have experienced a few occasions where I have felt that I’m not listened to, or my ideas are dismissed, and I’ve not really understood why.

At times it’s been hard to get new opportunities. I have a defined role, so have found getting new responsibilities hard, either because others don’t want to give them away or because I found out about an opportunity after it’s been allocated to someone else. I started to feel like I was being ignored, and the more I suggested something, particularly when it was different, the more it was dismissed. It was then that I started to get “opportunities” to represent my group on things purely for diversity reasons. On one occasion I was copied into an email where in the chain it said to send it to me because I was a woman. I found it so upsetting, it took the shine off the opportunity, something that I would have been excited to do, and I said no on principle. I wanted to be asked because of the quality of my science.

One of the changes I have seen at NPL, has been the increase in the number of women in senior leadership roles. I was there when one of them spoke about some of their experiences in an unconscious bias training course and it resonated so much, they said that seeking advice and building networks had really helped them. So that’s what I did. I had a chat with my Group Leader about my aspirations and asked for their opinion of where I was, they agreed that I wasn’t ready, but also gave me a lot more clarity about what I needed to do and how I could align better with the groups aims. The conversation went really well, I felt they were really listening, so I also mentioned how I felt about the type of opportunities I was being given and how they didn’t support me in progressing those items. Initially I think they thought that I was asking to be excused from these things, but when I explained it was a frequency issue, they agreed to look at how things could be spread out more.

Things have changed a lot since I joined the organisation, not only are there more women in general but there’s a greater diversity in the types of women and which areas of science they work in, although some areas attract more than others. I am less likely to be the only woman in the room at NPL, but still really notice it at external conferences. There are still so many stereotypes about physicists that influence young woman and girls, NPL’s outreach activities have given me many opportunities to challenge that and it’s great to see more women coming through our organisation.

I know people who have done some of the career progression programmes and sit on our gender equality committee. It’s through them that I got the recommendation to go on the unconscious bias training, I had seen it advertised before but hadn’t prioritised it. The course put into words things I was feeling but couldn’t explain. I felt things were happening that were unfair, and I was being treated a bit differently, but it was so subtle that I felt I was making a fuss if I raised it. But equally once I saw it and had the thought in my head, I found it hard to get rid of.

As a woman in science, I have in the past experienced comments that I felt were sexist, but these were mostly earlier in my career. I would say that explicit comments don’t really happen, but the more implicit, smaller comments do on occasion. I heard about one instance where someone was referred to as a girl in a very dismissive way, that I thought was inappropriate. But I know that progress is being made as in this story she didn’t have to say anything, colleagues jumped in on her behalf and that is something that’s changing in the organisation.

Other women will have had different experiences to me, but hopefully all would agree that they have seen change and are keen for that journey to continue.

My advice would be to understand the opportunities that are around you and look for them in unexpected places. The more exposure you get to different areas, projects and ways of working the better. Take an active part in shaping your career. One thing I have got better at is not just saying I want an opportunity but being able to be more explicit in what I’m looking for and why. I’ve found it helps to get things as people think of you when something comes up. Don’t limit yourself to what you think you need, be open. Take chances and seek mentorship to help you evolve your ideas.

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