The theme for the 2021 International Women’s Day is “Choose to Challenge”. Achieving greater diversity in science, engineering, and manufacturing career is not something that will happen automatically. Even as universities and companies all take a positive stance, considerable work remains to be done by individuals to change the image of these careers, starting as early as possible.
Dr Sara Ridley, Project Director at Autocraft Solutions Group, is doing exactly that. A STEM Ambassador, she makes time to volunteer at local schools and universities, running after-school activities and presenting at events for girls aged 8 to 16 that aim to change perceptions about engineering. She hopes to show them that, rather than being about ‘spanners and dirty overalls’, STEM careers open doors to frequent international travel and collaboration with diverse groups of people.
Her connection to this cause started early in her career. She encountered Women in Science and Engineering (WISE) in 1984 when it was established, and was inspired to pursue a career in this field. “At that time, women in my family did not typically go to university, so I started my career right after leaving school through an apprenticeship in manufacturing,” she says.
After a decade in the industry, Dr Ridley crossed paths with researchers from the University of Strathclyde, who were gathering industry data for their research. She was happy to assist them, but noticed that their output was incomplete. “When they ran the resulting research papers by me, I immediately recognised that the industrial perspective was missing, and was able to provide some key insights,” she said.
This brush with academia convinced her to pursue a PhD, but she worried she would not have enough time to make it happen, as she would have to balance it with rearing a family and supporting it financially.
“At this point in my thirties and raising four young boys, I could only make time for a PhD if I could conduct research during working hours. The team at Strathclyde told me about the Royal Commission for the Exhibition of 1851 Industrial Fellowship: that it would allow me to complete a PhD while staying at my job.”
The Commission works with partnering companies to fund the Fellows’ salaries throughout their PhD, giving companies the flexibility to allow Fellows to collect data and work on their research while on the job.
“It was great to hear my company say ‘you won’t be penalised for pursuing a PhD, in fact we support it'," Dr Ridley explained. "They recognised that one person having both academic and industrial expertise would benefit the company in the long term, and gave me the time to concentrate on research.”
First set up by Prince Albert on the heels of the Great Exhibition, the Royal Commission awards around 35 postgraduate Fellowships and Scholarships every year for research in science, engineering, and design, with the goal of extending the influence of science and art on productive industry.
Dr Ridley recognises that the Commission uses these opportunities to augment diversity in STEM, across both academia and in industry, and regularly attend the Commission’s events, featuring presentations from current Fellows and alumni. “I am always astonished by the breadth of research topics, as well as the people. To have that exposure of young, successful women in STEM to a wider network is something to be celebrated.”
Dr Ridley’s Fellowship opened doors both in the immediate and long term. The industrial perspective of her research made it stand out, and allowed her to travel to Japan and present at a major remanufacturing conference. She also won a Rematec Award.
Now in a senior position at Autocraft Solutions Group, she still keeps up to date on academic research. “The topics I explored in my research are still applicable today and I keep up to date on the latest academic developments and trends,” she says.
The company quickly saw the value in Dr Ridley’s combined academic and practical perspectives. Her work has provided them with the confidence that the Fellowships are worthwhile, and they have since employed another Industrial Fellow.
Dr Ridley has also continued to strive for greater gender diversity at Autocraft Solutions Group.
“We have consistently used gender-neutral language in our job advertisements and position diversity as one of our strengths," she said. "The effort has led to tangible results and today I am fortunate to work with some incredibly bright young women.”