Spotlight on women in STEM - Sophie Carr


Let me start by asking you, the reader, a question. What do you have the most emotional reaction to, words or numbers? If you are an avid reader like me you might think of all the times you’ve been gripped by a good story. Now, stop and think about all the numbers that have, and still do, move you every single day. Numbers such as the time, exam results, sports scores, travel delays, quarterly sales, seasonal variation, tax returns, experimental results: the list is endless.

My career involves working in analytics and statistics, so when I started to think about what to write for this blog, I inevitably turned to numbers. At the moment, there is a renewed focus and energy on how to increase the number of women working in STEM.  This made me wonder how, over my education and career, I would have been reported as a statistic.  

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When I decided to study A-levels in maths, physics and chemistry with a view to studying engineering at university, it was my dad who sat me down and told me there might not be many other girls with the same aim as me. Truthfully, that thought had never crossed my mind. It turned out I was the only girl in my sixth form studying maths physics and chemistry. So what statistic was I and how can I effectively show the percentage of females at each stage of my education and career? 

At sixth form, should I be reported as less than 1% (the only girl in the whole of my academic year studying that combination) or at about 6% (one within the group of about 15 studying maths, physics and chemistry)? For the purposes of this blog, I'll show both - just to show the importance of knowing the base frequencies.  Regardless of the statistic you choose, what’s really interesting is that I was never actually alone. There were three girls studying physics and even more in my chemistry and maths groups.

Inevitably, I went on to study aeronautical engineering at the University of Bath. There were about 100 people in my year of which about 10% were female.  Breaking this down into my specific degree, Aeronautical Engineering with French, there were about 10 of us in total and two were female. So should I be reported as one of the 10% or one of the 20%? Either way, it’s an increase from my A-levels.

Following on from my Bachelor's, I went on to study an MSc at the University of Manchester where I was one of four females on a course of around 15 people.  Suddenly, I am one of the 26% that is female. Another increase occurs when I start my first job where currently a third of the workforce is female. During the early part of my career, there was variation in the number of women within the teams I worked in. That hasn't changed - very occasionally I am still the only female in a team and other times we are the majority. Overall, I am never really alone. 

It also seems I was riding the wave of an increasing number of women in STEM. I've always enjoyed work, but I missed research so whilst working I completed a part-time PhD.  In the year I defended my thesis 66% (two out of three) of my supervisor's students who defended their thesis were female.  Yet there is still one increase I can report.  That increase comes in 2009 when I founded my own company, making 100% of the workforce female. That percentage stayed when I hired my first employee. 

The statistics show that at every key point in my education and career I have been part of an increasing cohort of women in STEM. Looking back over my career, I think overall that is true-albeit, there is room for many more to join. What a statistics can mask, is that at times the increasing percentage of women was caused by decreasing number in the base frequency.  Statistics is a wonderful discipline - I enjoy making sure the correct base frequency is used to report descriptive statistics accurately.  Yet, what would be even more wonderful would be a future where there are so many women in STEM it is no longer an issue.

There is no simple answer as to how that aim can be achieved. In my opinion, one small part that all women in STEM can play is to speak out a little bit more so collectively we can increase the knowledge of the myriad of roles open to women. I know this isn’t an easy task: it’s taken me a long time to find my inner voice and share my experiences.

However, I want to let other young girls and women know that if you want a career in STEM it is there waiting for you. I have ended up working with aeroplanes, owning my own company and working on projects including: putting weather parameters in forecast models; modelling the risks of breeding dogs with a form of epilepsy; developed tracking algorithms for autonomous vehicles and predicting where unidentified shellfish catches have been taken from.

I never had a set career path, I just kept finding interesting projects to work on. I'll keep on working with numbers, finding the patterns and enjoying my career for as long as I can. There really isn't another career I could enjoy as much as this one.