Professor Pam Thomas, CEO, Faraday Institution, shares her views on why diversity in science is so important, her experience as a woman in STEM, and her advice to those in minority groups building their careers.
Why is diversity in science so important?
Only 28% of professorships are held by women in UK universities in 2021, this despite women representing 45% of all academic staff. Less than 1% of professors are black. We as a society have so much further to go achieve equality for all and to channel a huge amount of untapped potential in the pursuit of common goals.
Facilitating the move to a low carbon economy is the singularly important research question of this generation. It is an urgent imperative and a global race that we as a country and a global society cannot afford to lose.
Huge research questions like this need a large co-ordinated effort, multidisciplinary teams, and a diverse community of researchers that can bring a multitude of approaches and perspectives to overcoming the research challenges. Achieving equality of access to scientific and engineering careers at all levels will significantly help meet the STEM skills shortfall that the UK continues to experience.
But the importance of diversity in science is so much more than this. In a multitude of scientific endeavours, be it technologies to reach Net Zero goals or vaccine development, building a community with complementary talents drives the scale and speed that research and innovation can proceed. A supportive culture where engaged discussion can thrive and where the combined contributions of a multitude of backgrounds, research disciplines and life experiences catalyses discovery and innovation.
At the Faraday Institution we are committed to developing a community that is dynamic and diverse, built on collaboration, respect for others, recognising achievement, and where members proactively offer a helping hand to colleagues and strive for equality, diversity and inclusion. Our aim is to create an environment where all researchers can thrive as we know that combining the skills and talents of a dynamic and diverse community brings great strength.
What has been your experience as a woman working in STEM?
Early in my career I was frequently the only woman in the room, and it was sometimes difficult to have my voice listened to and my contribution recognised. This kind of experience can reduce self-confidence and seed self-doubt. Things have definitely changed for the better now as teams have become more diverse. I hope that the work that many of us have done over the years to demonstrate that STEM careers can be welcoming for women has led to improved experiences for them, particularly in the early stages of their careers.
What advice would you give to women or individuals in other minority groups who are building their careers?
My advice for all early career academics would be two-fold:
Get yourself in a position where you are not only being heard but listened to, where you’re taken seriously. This comes with experience, time and perseverance. It’s important to understand that if you’re not being listened to it can be because of youth or inexperience (something that all early career academics and all young professionals may go through to some extent) not necessarily because you’re being undervalued or side-lined, although it can be the latter too! It can be difficult early in a career to understand the difference. Mentoring – particularly for researchers in groups under-represented in STEM – is particularly valuable in this regard.
Many researchers, particularly those with caring commitments, simply don’t have or don’t gift themselves time strategically to plan their professional future. I would say take time and space every so often away from the day-to-day pressures of research to reflect on your career. Understand yourself, what you’re good at, what you enjoy. Accept that this may change at different times in your life and be confident in your decisions.