Kate Arkless GrayKate Arkless Gray is an award-winning content strategist and has been named YunoJuno‘s Social Media Freelancer of the Year 2022. 

She has 20 years multi-media experience, ranging from a role with a commercial space company to developing Al Jazeera’s first audio strategy and podcast pilot. Kate is also a committed advocate for diversity and women in STEM and passionate about pursuing her dream of going into space!

Tell us a bit about yourself, background and your current role

Goodness – I always struggle with how best to describe myself since I’ve had quite a varied career and I’m happy to turn my hand to a variety of things. I guess the key theme throughout has been communication, and in particular, translating complex science or technology into understandable and engaging content.

I’ve always been interested in science and how it impacts society, but I realised whilst doing my genetics degree that I far preferred telling stories about the science and thinking about real-world applications, to staring down a microscope at fruit flies. (Fly labs smell pretty bad btw – trust me.) I ran the student radio station during my finals and realised how much I’d always loved radio. I began freelancing in radio stations and then did a broadcast journalism postgraduate diploma.

Since then, I’ve tried to combine my love of science with my love of storytelling, working at the BBC Science Radio Unit, the Wellcome Trust, and as Head of Communications for a private space company. Just over a decade ago I met an astrobiologist from NASA at a conference where I was producing some outreach sessions. Meeting him made NASA/space “real”. Previously I hadn’t considered space as an industry that people like me could work in. It’s hard to explain. It wasn’t that I had considered it and ruled myself out, but it hadn’t even occurred to me to consider whether it was possible – much like applying to Cambridge. If it weren’t for my chemistry teacher encouraging me to do so, I don’t know if I would have even thought to try. I laughed when he first suggested it, but he changed my life, and in the same way, meeting Dr Chris McKay made it “real” and the NASA pin he gave me started my space adventures. I do my best to share my stories make space “real” for other people now. I think that is so important, and you never know whose life you could change.

At the moment I’m freelancing with a content agency, partly because I enjoy the variety of work – one day I’m writing financial education material for school children, then next I’m writing about the 40th anniversary of the Falklands conflict for Royal British Legion Festival of Remembrance programme. The other reason is that I was diagnosed with breast cancer last year, and the agency were good enough to both keep offering me work, and be understanding and flexible when I had to have surgery, and radiotherapy. It’s been a tough year, so I was amazed and delighted to win the YunoJuno Freelancer of the Year Award. I’m not often proud of myself, but I give myself a pat on the back for that.

Did you ever sit down and plan your career?

In a word, no. Sometimes I wonder whether I should have, perhaps I should have chosen a career that had a more linear progression path, but I enjoy too many different things and I didn’t think I wanted a job where you start after university and retire 45 years later.

Have you faced any career challenges along the way and how did you overcome these?

Yes. Many. Some internal, some external.

I went to an all-girls secondary school, and they always had such belief in us, and I naively thought that sexism was something in history, and that it wouldn’t really affect me. I was wrong. What made things worse was that even when it did affect me, I didn’t think it could possibly be sexism, because that was something from the past, right?

I’ve never been a confident person (though I’m getting better at pretending!) and I had imposter syndrome way before I knew there was a name for it. That meant I thought that if I wasn’t doing well, it must always be my fault or failing, not sexism or a toxic workplace. That was quite harmful.

Sometimes I would work and work to try to get recognition that was never going to come or attempt to solve impossible problems. Things have to get really bad before I realise/accept that it is not me that’s the problem, and on occasion, they have. I’m getting better at spotting the warning signs and trusting my spidey senses about these things now.

I’ve also found it hard when I have been the first person to do a particular job in a company or organisation where people don’t understand your craft. “Oh – it’s just Twitter, we’ll get the intern to do it” – that sort of thing, it can be very devaluing. The problem is if you do something well, and make it look easy, people assume that it is easy. Like audio editing – done well no-one even notices it, but the second it is done badly, everyone can hear it.

What has been your biggest career highlight to date?

When I worked at the Wellcome Trust we helped get the law changed to enable further research into mitochondrial donation and allow licensing of the technique if it was shown to be safe. Mitochondrial donation can allow women with faulty mitochondria (the “batteries” of our cells) to have a baby free of devastating mitochondrial diseases.

It was fascinating and exciting because progress in science had out-paced the law, and it needed updating to allow further research to be done. Watching the bill move through the House of Commons and House of Lords, and finally getting approved was amazing.

I love that I get to share my passion for space exploration on Sky News. As a radio person at heart, the idea of being on camera was terrifying, but I heard a TV producer explaining why they didn’t have more women experts on air, and they said, ‘we want them, but when we ring women, they often say ‘it’s not my exact area of speciality’, whereas men just say ‘yes’”. It stuck in my head, so the next time Sky rang me I just said ‘yes’ – and I can’t have been too bad because they keep inviting me back!

What one thing do you believe has been a major factor in you achieving success?

I work hard, I care about what I do, and I am always keeping my eyes open for useful connections and opportunities. There is some truth to the saying that you can make your own luck. I’ve worked incredibly hard to build up my networks and keep in touch with people. I used to think that if you were helped by someone in your network, then it was ‘cheating’ or having an unfair advantage, which it often is – but if you were the one who worked hard to create those connections, rather than be born into them, then I think it’s okay – especially if you help others break into those networks and have a place at the table.

What top tips would you give to an individual who is trying to excel in their career in technology?

Don’t put limits on yourself or talk yourself out of trying for things you don’t think you’re good enough for – it’s frequently women who underestimate what they can do, so give it a try, what’s the worst that could happen?

Don’t take on more than you should, or burn yourself out, not for anyone. I learned this the hard way.

Ask. Politely. Don’t be pushy, but sometimes you just need to be brave enough to ask for something in order for it to happen.

Do you believe there are still barriers for success for women working in tech, if so, how can these barriers be overcome?

Yes, sadly there are. Some of it is down to showing young women what is possible, and helping them have confidence in themselves, but importantly, we need to ensure that workplaces are welcoming. I can’t remember who it was who suggested the idea of having a feminist-in-residence in companies to help them understand what needs to change, but I’ve always liked that idea.

We need to look out for each other and encourage men to be allies, to recognise and call out the common microaggressions like talking over women or restating their ideas and taking the credit.

What do you think companies can do to support and progress the careers of women working in technology?

There’s a whole lot of research into the language that is used in job adverts, and it would be great if more companies took notice of that so as not to dissuade women from applying if they don’t think of themselves as “exceptional” etc.

Companies should consider invites to speak at conferences and find out if the panel is going to be diverse or not. All-male panels are so common there’s even a word for them – “manels” – and there is no excuse for it now.

If the moral case for equality and diversity isn’t cutting through, companies should at the very least recognise the financial benefits to having a more diverse set of people in the positions of power.

There is currently only 15% of women working in tech, if you could wave a magic wand, what is the one thing you would do to accelerate the pace of change for women in the industry?

If I had a magic wand I would want to see true diversity in all areas of companies instantly! But if it’s not quite that powerful then perhaps a microaggression buzzer that would sound every time a microaggression took place.

What resources do you recommend for women working in tech?

Check out things like Ada’s List, the community around Ada Lovelace Day (fingers crossed Suw gets funding to make it happen again), and look out for events related to your specific field. I find Twitter an amazing tool to help me keep up with industry news and events, and get a feel for communities that develop around certain topics. I also like to do what I can to support organisations like Women in Science and Engineering – they do great work.

It’s not so much a resource, but my top tip if you’re speaking at a conference, or just attending a conference, is to wear something colourful. Something that will stick in people’s minds even after they have heard 11 talks in a row. That way, even if they can’t remember your name, they will be able to find you in a crowd of dark suits, to ask you something, or to introduce you to someone else you should meet. By making it easier for them to find you, you avoid missed connections, and you never know what they could bring.