Perdita Barran has an impressive rap sheet. She is the Chair of Mass Spectrometry in the Department of Chemistry and Manchester Institute of Biotechnology (MIB), the Head of the Michael Barber Centre for Collaborative Mass Spectrometry, and the Associate Dean for Research Facilities in the Faculty of Science and Engineering. But to get to where she is today, she’s had to work hard.
“When I first applied for the Chair in Mass Spectrometry post at the University, I was unsuccessful and that hit me hard. But two years later the job was readvertised, and I was appointed. This made me the University's first Chemistry alumna to become a Chair in the subject.”
While her successes have been many, there have also been a few points in her career where not everyone was as helpful as they could have been. “At a launch for the EPSRC funded prosperity partnership for which I am a co-investigator, a fellow Manchester professor (male) asked who I was the PA for.” While this question is easily rectifiable, it does have a root in a deeper-seated unconscious bias that is still prevalent in male-dominated industries today.
“I was the University's first Chemistry alumna to become a Chair in the subject.”
It is these unconscious biases that many in science, engineering, technology, and maths (STEM) subjects are working towards solving. Perdita herself led the charge as the Director of Social Responsibility in the Department of Chemistry for three years. “We have the capability and capacity to offer everyone equal opportunities – especially at universities” says Perdita. And one of the equal opportunities that she feels strongly about is support for families, especially if they are required to relocate for work.
Relocating to progress
“We moved from Edinburgh to Manchester [for my job] and I felt very responsible for my family and for my research group who had both moved to accommodate my career goals.”
To support staff relocating for work, Perdita comments on the number of buildings that universities have that could be offered out as accommodation: “we have plenty of buildings on campus, such as the Sackville Street building which will be vacated when the Faculty moves to the new MECD building, that could be converted to offer accommodation to new academics while they find their feet in a new job and a new city. At least that would remove some of the stress of moving, especially if you have a young family in tow”.
As is already known, the higher up the professional hierarchy you look, the fewer women you will find. Offering help to make transitions between roles, especially if this allows for promotions, would be beneficial to women who might otherwise be put off from taking the next steps in their career because they are made to choose between their work and their family.
“We have the capability and capacity to offer everyone equal opportunities – especially at universities.”
Flexibility is key
Other areas where Perdita notes room for improvement are simple things such as allowing children into offices. “When we couldn’t find places for our kids in school, we struggled to find care for them as we had moved away from our friends and family. It is MIB policy to not allow children into the building, but on occasion this would have been incredibly helpful as I could have watched the kids in my office while working.”
Simply offering flexibility would allow many more women to take advantage of opportunities in their careers without having to sacrifice time with their families. This is something Perdita laments about her own experience of having a family. “When I had my kids, while I took maternity leave, there was no cover provided in my absence. This meant that I was trying to juggle a new-born baby with supporting my research group, as well as catching up on teaching duties before and after my maternity leave.
“Time was at a premium and I certainly was less successful. My publications dipped and my promotion prospects lessened. I remember a male colleague, with kids a similar age, being promoted to chair and I felt gutted!”
Fortunately for Perdita she has a supportive husband and network of family and friends, and combined with her love of her subject, she was able to persevere and progress her career to where she is today. However, it should not only fall to individuals to forge their own path, it is also up to employers to further support staff to manage workloads around family life so that everyone is afforded the same opportunities to progress.