Challenging traditional ways of working

Sarah Haigh is working to offer flexibility to women, carers and young families.

Picture a stylishly dressed, quick-witted and clever woman outdancing a group of undergraduate students in a night club and most people wouldn’t think of a science professor. But this is exactly the kind of role model Sarah Haigh – Professor of Materials Characterisation – had when she was at university. Sarah was fortunate that on her undergraduate course she had a teacher like this, not only an excellent teacher but one who also knew how to engage with her students. But this isn’t always the case.

“We need more visible female role models for people of all ages looking at science. In fact, we need a broader range of role models full stop. Not just pictures of White, middle-aged men with beards dressed in white coats,” says Haigh on our Zoom call, before quickly adding, “but of course if you are a bearded, White, middle-aged man in a lab coat, that’s absolutely fine!”

Sarah is the Director of bp’s International Centre for Advanced Materials (bp-ICAM), a $100 million investment by bp in a partnership between the company and The University of Manchester, The University of Cambridge, Imperial College London and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

She is also a senior academic in the Department of Materials and is passionate about making access to science and engineering fairer for all, starting with more visible female role models. As a female professor and centre director, Sarah is a visible role model herself, but there is still a lack of women electing to study science, technology, engineering, maths and medicine (STEMM) subjects and even fewer making it through to work in academia or industry after they graduate.

“We need more visible female role models for people of all ages looking at science.”

Barriers to progression

Sarah thinks one of the biggest factors impacting on women’s career choice and progression is choosing to have a family. “Having children and caring for them is still often seen as a woman’s job by society, although this is slowly changing” she adds. Data from Ipsos Mori confirms this, and while the traditional view of caring roles is shifting (spurred on by the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic), research from the UK government in 2018 still found that women were more likely to take a break from their career to care for their children, and were less likely to return to work full-time at the end of maternity leave.

But as Sarah points out, taking a break from a scientific career can be difficult. “If you’re a postdoc you might be on a temporary contract, so you are probably already worrying about job security, but to then take a year out of that contract to start a family, that’s a significant amount of time, especially when you’re working on a complex project where finding someone to backfill your role is going to be hard.”

This worry is of course not just limited to science, it is a problem keenly felt by women all over the world, no matter which industry they work in. Sarah goes on to say:

“And while it’s hard to balance a young family at the beginning of your career, you have to remember that your children continue to grow while you are progressing professionally. So, while you may not have the sleepless nights and nappy changes, you find instead you have to juggle school commitments, and keeping your kids entertained all while your employer may be heaping more responsibility on you.”

Sarah Haigh

“You have to remember that your children continue to grow while you are progressing professionally.”

Supporting women to further their careers

So, how can employers support women so that we have more visible female role models?

Sarah believes it is important to offer flexibility, whether that’s with working hours or with parental leave arrangements, or to allow for other caring responsibilities. Having the ability to work around the school day or to leave work early to collect the kids from school and work later in the evening, offers families a way to manage their work commitments and family life in a way that suits them. The rigid 9-5 structure that we were all so used to forces families to make a choice, and it need not be like that. At least not where flexibility can be afforded.

While the pandemic has highlighted many imbalances in society, it has required employers to look at the way they work and adapt practices to accommodate people’s lives. At the bp-ICAM they found that due to the national lockdowns, some of their research staff were struggling with the additional caring responsibilities:

“We have two male researchers whose partners are frontline staff. While schools and nurseries were closed and grandparents were no longer able to assist, they both found themselves as full time dads to their two under fives. To help them manage work and looking after their family we shuffled our, now partly redundant, travel and conference budget around and gave it to them to pay for childcare so they could have a few hours a day to themselves.”

Sarah thinks that by empowering, supporting and enabling both men and women to take equal responsibilities for caring, we embed equality. There are always going to be challenges balancing work and home life, but with modern technology and a little bit of flexibility we can accommodate both. Through many small changes, women can be better supported as they progress through their careers, and society will benefit from more visible female leaders and role models for the next generation (although she feels professors dancing at night clubs should be optional).

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