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Dr Liz Rowsell Corporate R&D Director, Johnson Matthey

 

We need to break down some patronising stereotypes if we want to attract young women into STEM careers — and we have to interest children in science from a young age, says one senior chemist.

When Dr Liz Rowsell goes into nursery and primary schools to talk about science and to conduct some fun experiments, she always starts by asking the children a question: ‘What does a scientist look like?’

“They usually answer: ‘A man with white hair and spectacles’,” says Rowsell. “I say to them: ‘So do you think I’m a scientist?’ And they all shout: ‘No!’ I tell them: ‘Well, I am. And we’re going to do some science!’”

Rowsell laughs when she says this, but she’s making a serious point: there’s still a long way to go to break down the patronising and misleading stereotype that only men need apply for a career in STEM. “We do that by giving young children the chance to meet a female scientist who is doing really interesting, enjoyable things,” she says. “And we have to carry that all the way through to university level.”

Children need diverse role models in STEM

Rowsell is now Corporate R&D Director at Johnson Matthey, a company using science to make the world cleaner and healthier. As a girl, she always loved maths and science; but getting a Saturday job in a pharmacy dispensary aged 13 really fired up her interest in pursuing a STEM career.

“Well, I am a scientist. And we’re going to do some science!”

“The pharmacist I worked with was extremely generous with his knowledge,” remembers Rowsell. “He let me make potions, tablets and all sorts of concoctions and gave me the chance to apply my science. That was really important to me. He’s an example of how crucial role models can be because he allowed me to have more responsibility than you might otherwise give someone of that age. I remember deciding there and then that I was going to be a pharmacist.”

Ultimately, though, that was not the route Rowsell took. But working at the dispensary made her realise that she enjoyed practical chemistry in the laboratory, so she studied a medicinal biological chemistry degree at university and, later, a PhD in iron-sulfur chemistry.

Positive impact on society and job satisfaction

Rowsell is Johnson Matthey’s first female Corporate R&D Director, and has been with the company for 25 years. That’s an unusual amount of time to stay with one firm, she admits. But it doesn’t mean her career has been dull. Far from it, thanks to the sheer variety of work she’s been exposed to.

“I’ve been able to get involved in lots of different science areas: solutions for medicine, renewable energy and food quality, for example,” she says. “And, because of the nature of the job, I’ve always felt as though I’m making a real difference and contributing something to society. I think that kind of job satisfaction is important to many young people when they begin thinking about careers.”

Rowsell has also found another way to give something back. “I’m involved with various outreach projects, I sit on steering boards of universities and I’m a trustee for the Royal Society of Chemistry,” she says. “It’s a real privilege to be able to share my knowledge outside of the company. I’ve relished it.”

The number of female scientists, and in STEM, has increased

When Rowsell joined Johnson Matthey it was a very different environment with few female scientists in senior positions. “I’m pleased to say that it’s a very different landscape today,” she says. “Now, one third of the board is female and one third of all senior managers are female. We have a female Director of Communications, a female Finance Director, and a female Patents Director who all studied science. That gives a clear message to young women from science backgrounds that their skills are transferable and can lead them into all sorts of different — and well-paid — roles.”

Apart from anything else, women are needed in STEM workplaces because a diverse workforce better reflects the population as a whole; and because the conversation and behaviour of a company becomes more inclusive as a result. Rowsell Is also convinced that creativity is driven through a diverse work force.

To anyone thinking of a career in STEM, therefore, Rowsell has one loud and clear message. “I would say: ‘Go for it.’ You’ll be delighted with the variety of options it gives you, no two days will ever be the same — and it’s always rewarding and interesting.”

She isn’t, however, saying that women in STEM won’t face challenges. “They absolutely will,” says Rowsell. “But if you equip yourself with the skills and know-how to cope with each hurdle you face, it’ll be easier to get over the next one. I would encourage women to share their experiences with other women across different age ranges to help break down barriers.”