In October 2019, I wrote a blog for Advance HE highlighting my less than linear career path and my Aurora experience. My main ‘theme’ was that of expected pathways versus desired pathways and how it takes courage to deviate from the ‘expected’ path.
It was very much focused on my career in academia. Re-reading that blog though and in response to the International Women's Day 2022 campaign theme #BreakTheBias, I started to look further back as to how I came to where I am in the first place and what experiences, challenges and opportunities I have faced along the way.
I feel supremely fortunate that I have not knowingly been a ‘victim’ of conscious bias, and had never really noticed unconscious bias. Currently, for example, I am in an HE School management team of eight that is 50/50 split.
As an Aerospace Engineering undergraduate, I really struggled with being labelled as a ‘female engineer’ and almost actively fought against feminism. I was there on my merits, had done what I wanted to do, and it did not matter I was female. Even into my academic role, I just wanted to encourage and enthuse anyone into a passion for STEM. I did not feel comfortable with ‘women only’ events for recruitment or targeted scholarships, for example.
That was until I had a good chat with one of my female students who opened my eyes to the fact that I was the exception not the rule. She had come from a comprehensive school background, where she was the only girl in her Physics class. She wanted to be an engineer and was not being actively encouraged at school. The open day she came to at Coventry happened to be one that I led – delivered the course talk, took questions, organised the tour of facilities – and she told me that is why she came. She finally saw someone like her, doing what she wanted to do.
I was an only child of parents who supported me in everything I wanted to do. I passed the 11+ and went to an all girls’ grammar school where I never had to ‘fight’ against what I should and should not be doing as a subject. Our careers support suggested eight different engineering options would be the best for me.
The first time I was in the minority, doing what I wanted, was as a fresher at university but by then, I was 18 and focused and determined in what I did. It was at university that I also found rugby, a sport I still play 26 years later.
My Dad was asked once ‘are you disappointed that you did not have a son?’! The statement in itself is shocking and insensitive but his response was great. He said I have a daughter who is an engineer and a rugby player – I have the best of everything!
That ‘light bulb’ moment with my student showed that, actually it was exactly people like me that needed to show what was possible and that bias should not exist, changed my attitude and shaped a lot of what I do now. I became the university lead for Athena Swan in 2011 and spearheaded our initial institutional Bronze award application in 2012, which was successful. I continue to be an active member of our self-assessment team and the university/faculty level EDI committees.
I became a more active STEM Ambassador and have done a number of workshops and talks to various schools – comprehensive, grammar with a high percentage of Black, Asian and minority ethnic students where their family culture may also perpetuate the bias. I have also worked on our open day and outreach activities to make them more inclusive, through a grant from HE STEM programme.
When reflecting, I have realised that a lot of the confidence and courage that I had to deviate from the linear pathway and explore other options was due to being well encouraged and supported. Female-targeted events are designed not for the likes of me, they are for those that don’t have that exposure and opportunity. It is vital that people like me are part of those activities to continue to break down the barriers and the bias.
I now have my own children, a son aged 12 and daughter aged 8. My son loves rugby, cricket, drama and enjoys science subjects at school and my daughter plays rugby and dance and wants to be an artist! I have tried to follow the example set for me and encourage them to explore whatever they want to and support them through whatever decisions they make (although I’m very happy they both like rugby!!!).
I may not have had a specific role model myself but to know I could be (and was!) that for even just one other person to be able follow their dreams is a great feeling.
Caroline Lambert is Deputy Head of the School of Mechanical, Aerospace and Automotive Engineering at Coventry University. She spearheaded ‘Activity Led Learning’ within the engineering faculty and is a Senior Fellow. She has worked full-time and part-time at various academic levels from teaching-only to management.
Aurora is Advance HE's leadership development initiative for women. It is run as a unique partnership bringing together leadership experts and higher education institutions to take positive action to address the under-representation of women in leadership positions in the sector. Find out more and register your interest here.
Aurora: Your Future in HE
Face-to-face events taking place in 2022 will be of interest to Aurorans who are engaging with the main programme virtually on the 21/22 cohort, and are open to those who have previously engaged virtually but have not yet had a chance to meet face-to-face (from 19/20 and 20/21 cohorts). Find out more