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Women in science are ‘agents of change’

Published on February 11, 2022

I am delighted to host this round-table event to mark International Day of Women and Girls in Science with four members of the Women’s Network to discuss the opportunities that a career in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) has brought to them and the change they have seen in the industry over their careers. We reflect on what it means to be women in a male-dominated environment and what the future holds for women and girls in STEM. – Hannah Coogan, chair of the RSK Women’s Network and Regional Delivery Director at Binnies UK

Hannah Coogan: Let’s start with our speaker introductions.

Lara Duro: I’m currently Chief Executive Officer of Amphos 21 and based in Barcelona, Spain. I’m a chemist by background and hold a PhD in chemistry. Actually, I chose chemistry because it was fun. This was the main reason – I enjoyed it. Besides, the origin of everything in life is chemistry.

Margarita Germanos: I’m currently Managing Director of KMG Partnership and I lecture on architecture at London South Bank University. I was born in Beirut in Lebanon, I grew up in the civil war and from the age of eight I thought I want to be an architect, I want to build things.

Porscha Thompson: I’m a Senior Ecologist with RSK Wilding. I originally studied biology at university followed by a master’s in environmental biology. I’ve always had a love for the natural world and a fascination with knowing how things work and why certain species are in certain areas – when you love something like that and you can make a career out of it, why not?

Londeka Noxolo: I am a Graduate Consultant at RGM Environment in South Africa with less than two years of work experience. I grew up in a village named Montebello, which means beautiful mountain – I’ve always been intrigued by the mountain range and that’s why I chose a career in geology, which will enlighten me on Earth and its material form.

What has been your most valuable achievement or contribution while working in STEM?

Lara: That’s very difficult to answer. Looking back at my career, my main contribution is not in science: although I’m part of scientific councils and I have published in a lot of international journals, the most relevant thing I’ve achieved has been to help others. I have had many students and co-workers and I think the most rewarding thing has been seeing those people develop and evolve. This really is a pleasure.

Margarita: Lara, there’s a lot of resonance with me in terms of your role as a female and mentor to help develop and push for change. I’ve been always kind of a rebel in my career. I came into architecture, and it was a man’s world, so I spent a lot of energy in actually proving myself first. And working in the male-dominated Middle East for eight years, the challenge was even higher – and to succeed, knowledge and curiosity were key. And also, to fight for what is right.

So, I feel the whole summary of my career is energy and pushing boundaries! I love chemistry, I love physics and I love maths. Architecture is about space and body and movement, and how you occupy space. I felt as a female architect I needed to exist in that space and find ways for others to be able to follow, so they can feel empowered to voice their opinions.

I agree with Lara, it’s very rewarding, teaching. When I started studying architecture, women were a minority. Today, about 50% of my students are females, which is very encouraging.

Hannah: I certainly share that reflection as most of my colleagues are civil engineers and most of them are male. I do feel that I have a responsibility to mentor and help female colleagues grow. It’s quite powerful to hear that other people feel the same.

Porscha: For me, my work to make a meaningful change to improve biodiversity and wildlife, mainly on large-scale national infrastructure projects, is my greatest contribution – leaving the natural environment in a better state for future generations; making a real difference, and also changing people’s perspectives outside of the sector to understand the importance of ecology, biodiversity and the natural environment.

A lot of the construction-based environments I work in are very male dominated. When you talk about the need to improve diversity, to protect all habitats and species – a lot of the time, the client has just wanted to get on and do a job; sometimes they’ve seen what I do as a bit of a hindrance. So, going into that environment as a woman can be challenging, trying to change people’s perspectives and make them think differently.

Hannah: From your perspective, Londeka, as you are much newer to the industry, what do you feel has been your greatest contribution in your career so far?

Londeka: Choosing a career in science itself is a contribution because women, especially here in South Africa, are still afraid to choose careers within STEM because of the stereotypes associated with women in science.

The main achievement so far is my professional and personal growth that I have gained since I joined RGM. This includes being able to implement the skills and knowledge invested in me both academically and professionally. It is also a great achievement that in the early years of my career, I have been a part of a team that plays an important role in saving the environment and human health through sustainable remediation.

What is the greatest change for the better that you have seen in your role?

Lara: I think it’s a question of my maturity. When you start in this type of business, and in science in general, you are learning all the time, but you tend to underestimate yourself. And at the end of the day, you must make your voice heard and believe in yourself. It is very important that women and girls are raised being comfortable with assertiveness.

The most important change as a person and in my role as a scientist has been to gain this assertiveness and go for it. You don’t have to be underestimated by yourself or by others. In scientific discussions, the most dominant scientists are usually male and they usually express themselves very forcefully, but this does not mean they are in possession of the truth.

Margarita: For me, the biggest thing is that this change has been so slow. In the last five to ten years, we are hearing more about women in the industry. I remember I was in my kitchen in Abu Dhabi and there was a BBC World [Service] programme where all these women had been invited to the BBC to talk about their experiences and how women have made change in the world. And I’m sitting in the kitchen making a cake! And I’m thinking “Gosh, I wish I was there in London to just see them!” That still gives me goosebumps.

Now I’m a Managing Director but it took a lot of hard work to get here. I could have progressed to this level much sooner in my career, not after 30 years. Looking back, the capability was there but there was no space for me, because it was a male-dominated sector. So, I think we had to adopt a lot of male behaviour and now we need to get back to the truth of who we are as women as we gain power.

Hannah: I share a lot of your experience in feeling like I’ve been held back in the past. It’s been a very positive experience joining Binnies. When I started, I asked a lot of questions, which I worried was a sign I wasn’t ready for my role and then I started apologising for asking those questions! My manager is very supportive, however. He said whatever you do, don’t apologise and it’s not a sign of weakness but a strength.

Porscha: I’m still relatively early on in my career, but I think what Lara and Margarita said is true. When I first started out, I didn’t really believe in myself, but over time, my confidence has definitely grown and now I feel I’m making meaningful contributions. I ask questions all the time and I’m never going to stop challenging things because that’s the way you learn and progress.

Londeka: When I first started at RGM I had no work experience and I was assigned very basic tasks, but over time I have been assigned with more responsibilities. This has helped build my confidence and self-esteem within my role. I am now able to express myself in the most professional way possible.

What more needs to be done in our industry or sector to achieve equality?

Lara: There are many things to do! We must give the opportunity of feminine leadership, management and development. We have to accept diversity – we’re talking about women here, but we could also talk about race, about everything – this is diversity and the more diverse an organisation is, the richer it becomes.

Margarita: I definitely agree with Lara and women should be supported to progress in their careers. But I feel that it requires a policy change like in Scandinavian countries, where you instil in society that you are equal and that you have the same responsibilities.

Porscha: I agree too! At more junior levels in ecology, there does seem to be more of an equal split between men and women. However, as people become more senior, it also becomes more of a male-dominated environment and that does need to change. It can’t just be sorted out by government policies – companies need to be implementing their own policies; getting women’s, diversity and inclusion working groups together; doing things to support women so that they can achieve everything that men do.

Hannah: Londeka, as a new starter in the industry, what’s your reflection on this in terms of your career so far?

Londeka: More effort needs to be invested in terms of developing non-biased standards or procedures within companies, may it be for job selection or giving different opportunities to all. The focus needs to be shifted more towards the skills and competency of individuals and not on the skin colour or gender. In all honestly, achieving equality is a lifetime goal.

Lastly, what’s your number one top tip for women in science and engineering industries?

Lara: Go for it!

Margarita: Don’t take no for an answer.

Porscha: It’s about asking questions – it’s not pushy to speak up and to ask for what you know you deserve.

Londeka: Be open-minded.

Hannah: Thank you everyone! It has been really valuable to share our perspectives on what it means to be a woman working in STEM industries. We can see that there has been a lot of great progress but we know that there is still much more to be achieved. We look forward to working together in the future with the RSK Women’s Network to bring forward greater opportunities for women to progress in our industries.

Watch our video about International Day of Women and Girls in Science 2022 below

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