By Rebecca O’Brien
Teresa is the Director of the University of Manchester’s Discovery Centre at Jodrell Bank. She studied for an undergraduate degree in Physics at the University of Manchester, went on to do a Masters in Instrumentation and Analytical Science, followed by a PhD in Electrical Engineering. She previously worked with the charity ‘Practical Action’ and the NESTA agency as well as set up the UK’s original ‘Café Scientifique’ network. She has worked at Jodrell Bank since 2006, leading the project to set up the new Jodrell Bank Discovery Centre, which opened in 2011. It now attracts over 160,000 visitors per year, including over 22,000 school visits, and hosts innovative science engagement initiatives such as the ‘bluedot’ science-music festival.
In 2013 she was awarded an MBE for services to Astrophysics, and in 2014 she was awarded the Institute of Physics Kelvin Medal for Public Engagement with Physics.
You studied Physics at undergraduate level. How was it being a woman studying science in the 1980s?
It was a surprise to me to walk into the lecture theatre on my first day as a physics undergrad and just see a sea of blokes. I remember being taken aback by it and thinking ‘Where are all the girls?’ And in fact there were only 6 of us in a year of 200+, so it was about 3% female. Throughout my university career I did struggle with difficult things at the time; I was harassed, groped, and stalked at one point by various people I encountered in the university. There was a student culture that was quite male across the whole university, and I think that was what it was generally like at the time.
How would you say this is different to university life as a woman in science today?
It’s very different now. It’s a joy to go into the School of Physics and Astronomy now and see lots of men and women; there’s a lot of diversity, and it’s a lot better. That being said, it’s still only 20% female, so even though it’s come a long way from when I was an undergrad, it’s still not achieved parity, certainly not in physics, engineering or computing and IT. It’s an interesting question as to why that’s still the case because that sexist culture that was around in the 80s has gone down now and is not acceptable. So there has been a big change, but not withstanding that, there’s still a dearth of women in the physical sciences of physics and engineering. I think in the life sciences it’s always been the other way, there are more women than men, and it’s interesting to consider why that should be the case.
You’ve mentioned that there is still a large amount of disparity between women and men in science and engineering. Why would you say this is?
It’s hard to say, as there are lots of initiatives around now, run by learned bodies such as the Royal Society and the Institute of Physics, Royal Society of Chemistry, and Royal Academy of Engineering etc. Despite these there is still a gap. There are a lot of theories as to why that is, each of which have some element of truth, I think. For example, the Institute of Physics recently published a report that showed that girls in all female schools are more likely to study physics than girls in mixed schools. There’s a whole question there about whether the culture of subjects such as physics is currently quite combative and argumentative, and actually that puts girls off at that stage of their lives. This may be because the whole dynamic is changing so girls don’t want to be arguing with boys. This is perhaps because some girls are interested in boys, or maybe because this culture that is emerging is quite gendered and they don’t want to be seen as argumentative, or perhaps because they just can’t be bothered. There is also the question of whether the culture is part of the science itself (which I don’t think it is). Then there’s another theory that perhaps girls who do Physics at school are then more likely to go on to become medical doctors, than to pursue a career in Physics or Engineering, as it’s seen as an unwelcoming subject. So – I think that is there is some change but there’s still a long way to go.
You are clearly very passionate about women in science, could you describe some initiatives you support that enable women to contribute?
I support schemes such as ‘Project Juno’, from the Institute of Physics, which basically accredits departments depending on how good they are, not only on attracting women, but also promoting women in their careers. Personally, a lot of my staff at the Discovery Centre are female and a lot of them have physics degrees, so we also run a lot of events that encourage women to participate. We’re working to overturn the idea of a ‘male’ culture that’s unwelcoming by creating a culture that we’re trying to signal as ‘female’. There’s a real interest in science amongst women that is unrecognised. For example, when we do events such as our ‘Girls Night Out’, we find that they’re very popular. We do a lot of evaluation of their impact and certainly we find that the attendees report that they have changed their attitudes etc. At least one woman has gone on to have a career with the UK Space Agency and as well as this some women have chosen to study A-level or degree-level Physics as a result.
I’m also Chair of the Board of charity called ‘The Daphne Jackson Trust’, which works at the other end of the ‘pipeline’ for scientific research. The Trust addresses issues to do with the fact that lifestyle and choices can affect career progression. (For example, taking time off to have a family, or looking after an aged relative, or a sick member of the family can derail a career in research – and we know that work like this often falls to women). The Trust works to return people who have taken career breaks back to research, it does include men and women, but more often it affects women.
You have progressed from very academic scientific research in your degrees to now managing a team for a Discovery Centre, would you say being a woman in management is different from academia?
Academia is all about your own work, your own research, and while obviously it does include some collaboration, it’s quite focused on the individual. Managing a big team is completely different because you’re absolutely responsible for all of them, so you have oversight of not only what they deliver, but also their wellbeing and their working environment.
I find that quite challenging, (I have no management training, so have had to learn as I go along!) but also quite rewarding. I’m incredibly proud of what we all deliver as a team, from the amazing new schools programme, to ground-breaking public engagement initiatives such as the ‘bluedot’ festival.
I’m also very proud of the fact that, in building the Discovery Centre, I’ve created jobs for around forty people. When they come in and talk about buying their houses and having children etc I know that actually creating jobs and contributing to the economy has a result on people’s lives, which is very positive.
I didn’t realise this when I was in academia, when I believed that research and the pursuit of knowledge was actually a higher good, that actually enabling people to have lives and support their families is a great thing.
Would you say that you face any particular differences as a woman managing others than potentially men do?
I had the same sort of feeling about that question that I had when I went into the lecture on my first day of my Physics undergrad; ‘Where are all the women?’
I’m genuinely surprised that there aren’t more women because I don’t see any reason why there shouldn’t be. To me it’s just obvious that it’s a thing women can do as well as men. I think that the reason women aren’t in management so much is probably similar to the reason why there aren’t so many women in senior jobs in academia; it’s to do with the structures of society and expectation, and the way that society directs men and women into gendered roles. When women take career breaks to have a family then it’s an uphill struggle to get back into the workforce and achieve seniority.
All the senior managers in my team are female and I make a point of allowing them to work flexibly in order to accommodate their family commitments. They are a talented bunch and I don’t want to lose any of them because they can’t achieve the work-life balance, so I go the extra mile to make sure that they can.
It’s up to us to change the structures of work, management and family life so that all roles, whether they are paid or not, whether they are to do with caring, creating jobs, supporting people via management, whatever, become possible, regardless of gender.
You have touched on the connection between science and society and have previously stated your belief that science should be in the service of people and society, yet there seems to be little democratic control over the progress of science. How do you feel this influences your work?
This is something I’m very interested in because actually science and technology already have a huge influence over our lives and in the future, this will increase.
In parallel with this, there are very few people who make decisions about it that have scientific training. For example, very few people who are in government have scientific training. Many of the people who decide what happens in science and technology, the leaders of the funding bodies or senior managers in commercial companies, aren’t elected. Add to this the fact that there is a lower proportion of women in science, and very few women in senior management of the funders and commercial companies.
You then have a whole complex that not many people get to say what happens in science – and of those that do, a very small fraction are women.
How do you believe this monopoly of power could be changed?
For me one of the first steps towards addressing that real imbalance of power is to get people to be engaged with science and feel that they have some say over it and some interest in it. My current job running the Discovery Centre, which welcomes people into a site of great scientific activity and interest, is about that and it’s motivated by that; I want people to engage with science, I want people to feel they have a right to an opinion on it, and I also want people’s opinion to be heard because, otherwise, who decides our future?
It’s also worrying, as we have seen with the new President of America, that this lack of engagement with science results in decision-making that isn’t based on scientific facts. The US government, for example, currently doesn’t ‘believe’ in climate change. And of course, there was the recent furore about the decisions on abortion being decided by a room full of men, which has come up a lot in the last few weeks.
This crystallises the real underlying issue about who decides when it comes to the future of science and technology in society.
Yes, we already make decisions collectively about issues like transport, education and health provision. We also need to make decisions collectively about what’s done in science and technology as well.