My STEM journey as a woman7 April 2020
By Lowri Williams
The events of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic have been unfortunate and unforgettable. But on the lighter side of things, it has also allowed an increase in our communications with our family and friends, something I’m sure many of us had started taking for granted.
During this time of lockdown, my mum has started sharing with me some of my school reports that she has kept over the years; some of which have made us chuckle and others which have made me reflect on my career as a woman in STEM.
Thinking about it, I have not before sat down and reminisced as to how my career as an academic, a computer scientist, a data scientist, and a woman in these fields came to play. But, one of the many reports which started this embarkment down the memory lane of my newly started career was that of when I was 5 or 6 years old. My teacher at the time had described that I could guide the computer mouse on the screen well; however, my typing skills could be a little better(!).
Whilst I was growing up, I was never really aware of my passion towards technology. I was always a fan of sports and my answer to the question “what do you want to be when you grow up?” was always “I want to be a doctor”. But I distinctly remember that it would be hard to pull me away from the family computer. Granted, I was not implementing sophisticated applications or hacking infrastructures when I was 6 years old. I was mainly drawing on Paint. But the underlying interest was there, and it continued to when I was 17 and started learning to code as part of my Computing A-level.
During this time and when the question of which university I wanted to attend and what I wanted to study arose, I quickly acknowledged that I wanted to pursue a career in computer science. It was something I really got my teeth stuck into, but it also seemed like it was a peaking career. I quickly made the decision to apply to study a computer science related degree at Cardiff University. It felt like the right path to follow and it turned out pretty well! I pursued a fully funded PhD, also at Cardiff University, and I’m currently working as a data scientist on an exciting research project.
But during this important time, and other than my parents who have always supported in doing what made me happy, I don’t recall ever being fully supported in my decision. It was indicated to me several times that women are underrepresented in the field. I was faced with questions which had never crossed my mind because they just weren’t important to me, but I can imagine would be off-putting for others, especially young adults. “How will you make friends on your course? Girls don’t like coding, why do you? What job can you get with a computer science degree?”
During my studies was where I noticed the peak in women in STEM outreach programs. It’s as if someone in the department had listened to Sheldon from the Big Bang Theory, who said “Many ideas address the issues at a university level. By that time, it’s too late. You need to design an outreach program which targets girls in the middle school level. Which sets them on the academic track towards the hard sciences.”
Things were beginning to change, and exciting opportunities were beginning to unfold. There had been absolutely no drive towards this when I was in school. There had been no role model**, particular a female. Thinking back, this was exactly what I needed. I needed someone to reassure me that I was not wrong in wanting to pursue a career in this field, and that computer science was not just for males.
I have been very fortunate to not experience some of the problems faced by many females in STEM. But the main challenge we still face is the underrepresentation of women in positions of authority. I’m sure, in a way, that this adds to my drive to progress in my career, but also to be the role model that I needed.
** For another interesting look on the impact of role models, please read our blog by Naomi Dinmore on ‘Science Superheroes! Can role models positively influence children’s attitudes towards STEM careers?’: http://blogs.cardiff.ac.uk/diversity-in-stem/2019/02/18/science-superheroes-can-role-models-positively-influence-childrens-attitudes-towards-stem-careers/