Engineer showing equipment to a female apprentice, women in STEM

How funding and support through Fellowships are helping nurture women in STEM

Engineer showing equipment to a female apprentice, women in STEM

Article by Helen Harris, Fellowship Programme Manager at the Royal Commission for the Exhibition of 1851

While many sectors of the UK economy are making great strides in the name of gender equality and equal opportunity, the tech sector can seem to remain stubborn and elusive for many highly skilled women.

Current estimates suggest that only 22% of tech directors are women, and this is definitely not through lack of talent, but almost exclusively down to lack of opportunity. Despite women achieving undergraduate degrees at higher rates than men, many women are leaving universities and finding it a difficult and daunting task to pursue business success in tech industries. But many avenues are available to entrepreneurial women in this position to provide the opportunities necessary for success, and a particularly advantageous avenue is fellowships.

Each fellowship programme is different, and each organisation offering them has its own specialisms and idiosyncrasies. Across the UK a number of organisations providing fellowships are fostering one of the most supportive research environments in the world, from Research Fellowships provided by the Royal Academy of Engineering to Health and Social Science grants provided by the Wellcome Trust. Here, I would like to focus on fellowships offered by an organisation I am close to, the Royal Commission for the Exhibition of 1851. Fellowships offer a two-pronged approach to providing opportunities to those who can demonstrate the right characteristics of tenacity, business acumen and technological know-how. These prongs are funding and networking, and when brought together can provide the well-deserved leg-up required to achieve success in this male-dominated field.

Funding

Funding is fundamental to the success of any project. Whether you have a brilliant business idea or an ingenious scientific theory to trial their viability you first need financial backing. The Royal Commission for the Exhibition of 1851 offers financial support to graduates through a number of Fellowships aimed at entrepreneurs, researchers, engineers, designers and more. Through this a number of exciting tech ventures have been nurtured and the careers of many trailblazing women in STEM have been fostered. Among the alumni of the Industrial Fellowship programme you can find the likes of Dr Sarah Ridley, The Engineer’s champion of International Women’s Day 2021. Fellowship funding allowed Dr Ridley to earn a PhD whilst continuing to work at her job, now as Project Director for Autocraft Solutions Group she also acts as a STEM ambassador encouraging more women and girls to enter this industry.

Networking

A fellowship is often seen as a programme with a finite end and limits in its scope, but as they are often attached to larger academic and industrial bodies the doors they open are truly invaluable. The Commission’s fellowships enable graduates to become part of an alumni network that stretches widely in breadth and spans several generations, especially as it was set up over 170 years ago! The connections available to these awardees cannot be understated and collaborative working off the back of this often leads to the development of new and previously untapped trains of thought. The Commission boasts over 900 distinguished alumni in its network and previous fellows have included 13 Nobel Prize laureates.

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For aspiring researchers, a fellowship can represent the first step on a truly unexpected career path, with the ultimate goal of making great contributions and discoveries within a cutting-edge field. Dr Beth Mortimer, for example, completed her Research Fellowship with the Commission in 2019 which investigated how vibrational communication exists across nature. Throughout her fellowship she raised a further £830k of research funding and spoke at the TED Women conference in 2018. Now Dr Mortimer is using her specialism in vibrational communication in nature to develop bioinspired technologies for use in robotics.

Attempting to break into a male-dominated field can often feel intimidating and isolating, particularly for young women only at the beginning of their careers. Having the support provided by a fellowship programme can be a great source of confidence and advice needed to reach your inner potential. This culture of support, together with a world-class alumni network, brings fellows face-to-face with leading figures within their industries who can act as role models, which will be key for early career development.

Recent Enterprise Fellows have included design engineer Natalie Kerres who was supported by the Commission to further her biomimetic injury prevention tech start-up SCALED. Through funding, networking and mentoring opportunities Miss Kerres has established a successful business off the back of her own technological research.

Striving for success in STEM sectors is an aspiration for large numbers of young women up and down the country, but without the necessary structures and opportunities that aspiration can remain unrecognised and unfulfilled. Fellowships offer young people a life-changing opportunity to further their own careers and pursue scientific and technological brilliance. Even just this year Industrial Fellowships were awarded to women researching practical solutions to further diabetes research, shrink satellite technology, and accelerate the production of complex next generation therapeutics. Fellowships represent the ultimate level playing field in an industry trying to shake off a history of male-centric thinking, but have the potential to redress the gender imbalance by supporting the next generation of female innovators and entrepreneurs.

Fellowship opportunities are out there and fresh thinking from a broader range of female applications is definitively what is needed to level up the careers of ambitious women and take UK research to even greater heights.

For more information about Fellowships from the Royal Commission for the Exhibition of 1851 go to: https://royalcommission1851.org/.