Stephanie Liggins
Stephanie Liggins

An equal world is an enabled world

International Women’s Day 2020 is focused on forging a gender balanced world. At present, less than two-thirds of the economic opportunities available are fulfilled by women. As we enter the fourth industrial revolution, jobs will become more driven by technology and innovation, and we need to encourage more women to consider careers in STEM-focused areas to help prevent the gender gap widening.

Over the last 15 years, significant effort has been given to inspiring and engaging women and girls in science, yet globally only around 30 per cent of all female students select STEM-related fields in higher education. If the love of STEM subjects isn’t nurtured from a young age, there will be a direct impact on the types of careers that young women go on to pursue and the presence of women in senior STEM roles.

Coming from a home environment that was very much STEM rich, provided me with valuable exposure from an early age.  With the support and encouragement of my family, I found my love for STEM subjects and in spite of being one of only a few women in my maths and physics subjects at A-level and during my degree, it has guided me to a career that I find immensely rewarding.

Now, I’m a female physicist at Element Six. Aligned with the statistics, the science and engineering team here is predominantly male,  and whilst at times it has been challenging to ensure that I am noticed in the room, it has taught me a lot about how to be present, be heard and communicate effectively. 

From very early on in my career, I was given a lot of responsibility. I was made technical lead on my first project after only a few months, reporting to customers and internal stakeholders (all men) on a regular basis.  I had to prove myself and quickly learn how to influence my seniors, and it highlighted to me some key generational differences in leadership and management.  It allowed me to gain an appreciation for people’s individual preferences on how they communicate with others.  Whether male or female, each of us has a bias for being perhaps performance-orientated, data-driven or people-focused, and understanding a person’s preference allows me to speak their language. This in turn allows the formation of a better team with respect built-in; but it has to work both ways.  Organisation leaders must learn to respect their workforce as diverse individuals, with a host of unique needs, nurturing the value of each without driving to hit quotas or targets to demonstrate diversity.

Overall, my experience as a woman in STEM has been hugely positive.  The lessons I have learnt and the training I have received have held me in good stead to ensure that I am treated as an equal.  I am supported by my organisation and have great role models in the leadership team.  For many though, and this doesn’t just apply to women, poor communication and an unsupportive environment can act as unsurmountable barriers, leaving those experiencing it feeling unheard, dejected and inferior.  This seemingly implicit bias then proliferates to a point where it becomes easier to avoid engaging with it in the first place.  Is this what is limiting our potential next generation of smart STEM women entering into higher education and careers in these fields?

Leadership and mentoring

Seeing what can be achieved is inspiring.  For school kids, engagement at an early age with role models to show all the potential exciting opportunities of STEM subjects equally to the humanities and social sciences, may help to address the imbalance in education. In early careers, strong mentoring to help build the skills to establish presence and communication will help confidence in challenging environments for technically gifted young people and establish a successful and progressive career path.  STEM subjects are tough; all things are when developed to a level of mastery, but what makes us afraid to embrace that?  In my mind, it’s a lack of strong role models and a support network to encourage and learn from.

For me, support came through internal coaching and mentoring through Element Six’s leadership programmes.  Companies should want to employ the best people they can and develop them to be effective team members and leaders of tomorrow.  At Element Six, I am part of a network of men and women from all levels in the organisation, where we share experiences and support one another to be the best we can be.  In any job, you need to be able to work with a range of diverse people with varying skills, backgrounds and knowledge bases, recognise their individuality and empower the right people to be doing the right jobs.

It’s time to change the narrative

At college level, we witness a huge drop off for women moving away from STEM. Only 27% of all students enrolled in engineering, manufacturing and construction fields in higher education are female. Physics and maths are very much considered ‘scary’ subjects. We need to change this narrative and show that STEM subjects are both fulfilling and engaging for all young people.

Addressing the balance has to start at the earliest age.  Outreach programmes lead by industry, sharing the excitement of STEM activities are critical.  Leaders (parents, guardians, teachers and managers) can show the potential that can be offered and promote all the skills that can be gained, problem solving, analytical thinking, creativity and argumentation are key and breaking these implicit biases especially prevalent with women.  This in turn should help to ensure a steady growth in the numbers of young girls and women recognising there is an opportunity for a successful and fulfilling career in STEM.  This coupled with effective mentoring, training and role models for women will build a resilient leadership force for future female generations to aspire to.


About Dr Liggins

Dr Stephanie Liggins is a Principal Scientist at Element Six, part of the De Beers Group, with over 10 years’ experience in materials engineering and diamond synthesis. Stephanie has led a multitude of innovative projects using chemical vapour deposition, including developing the diamond tweeter dome, and currently leads the R&D team developing new materials for Lightbox Jewelery.