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BLOG – Women in STEM – Feminist Society, Robinson College

By Dr Stephanie Höhn and Raheela Rehman

On Saturday (23 February) Clara Bayley and Anna Davies from the Robinson College Feminist Society chaired a most interesting panel discussion on Women in STEM.  

The panel speakers for the evening were*: Dr Claire Barlow (Deputy Head, Department of Engineering, University of Cambridge); Dr Sally Anderson (Chief Technologist, Sharp Life Science); Professor Rachel Oliver (Department of Material Science and Metallurgy, University of Cambridge) and Dr Stephanie Höhn (Reserach Associate, Faculty of Maths, University of Cambridge, CamAWiSE Deputy-Chair).

The discussion opened with each speaker introducing the current figures of women in their respective departments and workplaces. The speakers also provided a comparison of their experiences and approaches to enhance opportunities for groups in different environments. Sharp Life Science, Sally Anderson indicated, has been working on gender balanced recruitment for over a year, which has resulted in a broad workforce which has balanced gender representation.


Rachel Oliver

Professor Rachel Oliver highlighted that the Materials Science and Metallurgy Department of the University of Cambridge retains its percentage of women in the department, with 30% registered female undergraduates and 30% in research and senior posts. The Department of Engineering, University of Cambridge, has 26% registered undergraduate female students, 20% postgraduates and 12 % research staff. Dr Claire Barlow has worked to increase the number of women across the board in the department, and it has especially seen a significant rise in the number of women in senior management roles at 75%.

Delving into the often explored question of when is it most important or effective to encourage women to participate in STEMM, the panel agreed that involvement from both early stage (toddler) to much later is critical. Citing the research carried out by the Institute of Physics, Rachel Oliver pointed out that influencers play a pivotal role. Two of the greatest influences in encouraging individuals into Physics are parents and teachers. Stephanie added that in addition, staff training in unconscious bias, BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) & LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender) should be compulsory. Sally Anderson’s father had played an important role, with his encouragement, in her choice in selecting to pursue her studies and career in STEMM. In reference to the ubiquitous gendered children’s toys, the panel agreed the early age influence created a mental split between parents’, girls and boys choices on what may be acceptable for later on in life.


Claire Barlow

Dr Claire Barlow has been working with Lego to promote gender-neutral toys and packaging.  

The discussion moved on to external influences, which the speakers felt had been particularly important in reaching their current roles, especially as women.  Claire Barlow advised, “Surround yourself with people who believe in you, have faith in your own ability and seek out supportive networks and maintain those networks.”


Stephanie Höhn

Stephanie Höhn encouraged take up of maths and physics, as they open many doors. The overarching message was to nurture one’s own interests and curiosity in the world around you.

With regards to time away from work for maternity leave, Sally Anderson had taken leave on two occasions for both her children, at six months each time. She had been in a position whereby her partner had some flexibility in his working hours to help for her return, and shared parental leave was not available at the time. Paternity leave is now available, and Sally pressed the need for senior staff to be seen taking paternity leave to encourage others to do so too.  And that a pause in one’s career for maternity or childcare requirements should not be presumed as a matter only for the mother.

With the importance of increasing and retaining Women in STEMM, the discussion led to the inclusion of other protected groups in the same sectors. The clear note was that, “In order to achieve, you need a broad membership at the table,“ Stephanie Höhn. Rachel Oliver said that there were two options for women, the first was to act and think the same as a man. The second was the need for the meeting of differences. “It’s through varied backgrounds where valuable creativity happens. Different experiences bring new perspectives in problem solving, and it is here the largest and efficient impact can be created,” Rachel Oliver.

The highlights deemed as helpful or necessary included: networks of allies; a policy of visibility and respect; more detailed information on the specific obstacles that people in marginalised groups encounter and a transparent communication to overcome these obstacles. The discussion involved challenges for women and other marginalised groups at all stages of their education and career.

The evening was an excellent example how personal interaction between students and faculty members can constructively influence education structures. The same applies to the exchange of experiences between departments, universities and industry concerning different strategies to overcome the specific challenges of women in STEMM.

The panellists were

* Dr Claire Barlow has been a senior member of Newnham College for over 40 years, and is currently the Deputy Head of the Engineering Department. She has also organised the International Women in Engineering Day in Cambridge last year.

*Dr Sally Anderson spent her career in R&D in the electronics industry. Currently she is Chief Technologist at Sharp Life Science, which commercialised a “lab-on-a-chip” technology for automating workflows in the life science, chemical and medical sectors.

*Professor Rachel Oliver teaches and researches Materials Science at the University of Cambridge. Her main interests are in light emitting materials for applications ranging from energy efficient lighting to quantum communications. She is the founder of the Robinson College Women in STEM Festival. She recently spoke to the Science and Technology Select Committee of the House of Commons concerning the impact of funding policy on equality, diversity, inclusion and accessibility in STEM.

*Dr Stephanie Höhn is a Reserache Associate in the Biological Physics and Mechanics group at the Cambridge Maths Faculty. She did a PhD in Biology and is now combining experiments and simulations to explore the physical parameters of tissue development. For this she is developing dedicated microscopy hardware. She is on the faculty’s Equality and Diversity committee and a member of the local LGBT+ group.

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