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Hazel Thorpe on being Wales STEM Woman of the Year and making IPO a brilliant place for women to work

Category: testimonial, STEM, Award, Women’s network, Girls In STEM, Staff Testimonial, Intellectual Property Office, recognition, staff network group, STEM Careers, Annual award, STEM for women, STEM for females, chair

Gender Focus

Hazel Thorpe, Senior Patent Examiner,

Women make up just 14% of the STEM workforce in the UK – the visibility of those in STEM roles at all levels is therefore vital in encouraging young women and people of minority genders to see that they too can occupy that space. The inaugural Wales STEM Awards were created in part to recognise the innovative STEM work being undertaken in Wales, and in part to address the diversity gap in the sector. We caught up with the first Wales STEM Woman of the Year, Hazel Thorpe, Senior Patent Examiner at the Intellectual Property Office UK (IPO) to find out more about women in STEM and about the initiatives she has been leading at IPO to make it a “brilliant place to work,” a stated aim in their business strategy.

Hazel is a Senior Patent Examiner at IPO and has been working as a Patent Examiner for almost 20 years. In addition, she is also a Training Champion and the Chair of 'Women's Inclusive Network.' She sits as an IPO representative on the Government Science and Engineering Women’s Working Group. She won Wales STEM Woman of the Year after being nominated by her colleagues for her admirable work on Women in STEM, diversity and inclusion.

Hazel explained that it was initially the interesting nature of the work and the appeal of applying her STEM skills to new areas that first attracted her to IPO alongside the job security, flexibility and work-life balance of working for the Civil Service. She told us about her role:

“My job as a Patent Examiner is to assess the inventions that come in, the applications for patents and to search and examine them. That means to search through patent databases and published information, to see if it has existed before, essentially checking if it’s new and inventive, because they are the main criteria for examining patents.

It’s fascinating when I can see some really interesting ways of doing things. You get to see some bizarre ideas that people have and some brilliant ideas that people have. Some are so simple – you look at them and say ‘Of course! That’s amazing! Nobody’s thought of that before.’ I work in construction so I see everything from tombstones to tents and some more basic construction type components – a huge range in between. You would think for example that a brick is just a brick – that there’s no invention to be had in bricks, bricks have existed forever. But actually there are inventions to be had in bricks and it’s astonishing what people come up with that improves the functionality of a basic component of everyday life.”

Hazel is a founding member of IPO’s Women's Inclusive Network and has been the chair of the network since February. We asked her to explain a bit more about the initiatives she has been leading to support women at IPO:

“We work in multiple ways, to support people and support the business but also to challenge the business. We are aligned to the Office strategy to make the IPO a brilliant place to work. A big part of that strategy is to be inclusive and treat people equally and with respect. So I’ve looked at the way IPO functions and its culture and data and determined, with the Steering Group, that we have key areas in which we need to work. Those are: supporting people’s career development, supporting people’s wellbeing, supporting and challenging the Office on the gender pay gap. Underlying all of that is a cultural piece challenging the gender perceptions that limit us and supporting people to be visible, to be role models. I think the cultural piece is really important, it underpins everything that we do. For instance, we’ve recently published an article on our internal website entitled ‘Just because I’m a feminist doesn’t mean I’m a man hater.’ It’s about attempting to break down any preconceptions, so that when we make systemic changes there will be acceptance that this is needed. And that’s been really successful.”

Hazel described the myriad ways in which the Women’s Inclusive Network is supporting people’s career development: She created a mentoring microsite matching potential mentees with mentors, to open up the benefits of mentoring to all employees, regardless of their informal networks; the Women’s Inclusive Network is sponsoring two people to do an ILM in Leadership; the Network also runs events to support career development, for example a workshop with a voice coach and a series of ‘coffee chats’ with senior leadership to myth-bust what life is like at senior levels, to break down preconceptions they might have about work-life balance and encourage people to aspire to that level.

In terms of supporting women’s wellbeing, an active consideration is how best to support people through the menopause. Hazel recently hosted a discussion following a webinar by IP Inclusive designed to help people understand the impacts of menopause, and the network has been supporting awareness for both employees and managers. Hazel explained the importance for managers of understanding the impact of the menopause and how far ranging the effects of the menopause can be.  As Hazel explained, “They can be so serious that someone is entitled to reasonable adjustments under the equalities act due to having a disability due to the menopause.”

The gender pay gap is one of the key markers of inequality and is particularly pronounced in organisations with a specialist STEM workforce. We asked Hazel about the situation at IPO and how they are addressing this:

“Our gender pay gap is 21%, which is slightly better than last year. We are looking to improve it from multiple angles – recruitment is one of them, so now we have a career profile on specialist diversity and inclusion jobs website VERCIDA and that allows us to show what the IPO is truly like. We have also reviewed our recruitment processes and as a result, this September, the Patent Examiners that we have recruited have had a completely different gender balance to what we’ve had previously – this time we had a 50/50 gender split. It was only a small number of examiners that we recruited so is perhaps not a statistically viable number, but it’s much better than our usual 25% or so, which is more typical of gender balance for women in STEM.

We’re targeting ‘STEM returners,’ people who have taken a break from their careers to care for their children and have introduced a STEM Returners Programme, which gives people a way back in. It gives people 12 weeks of work experience, which will make it much easier for them to get a job, quite possibly in a STEM field, quite possibly a job with us, possibly a job somewhere else – It fills that CV gap of people having no work experience for the past 7 years. We’re also reviewing our Shared Parental Leave policy - I think that’s a really key one - it’s about ensuring that men are not only entitled to take time off when their child is born, but are also supported to do so by IPO culture and systems.”

The STEM Returners Programme and the review of shared parental leave are exemplary of family friendly working practices. We asked Hazel what other aspects of working at IPO make it one of the Top 10 Employers for Working Families:

“We have immense amounts of flexibility, so I don’t have any core working hours. I can log on at 5am in the morning if I like or I can log off at 10pm. We have flexi leave – if I build up extra hours I can take it as time off – there is a huge amount of flexibility and our work-life balance is brilliant. When I returned from maternity leave, I was supported, I had a mentor, I had training, a very understanding manager, I could dictate my own hours, I had all the support I wanted and was allowed to ease back into all the different elements of my job.”

Why is visibility important for women in STEM? Hazel explains:

“If you can’t see it you can’t be it. I think there’s a real truism behind that. I think if you can see it then you are much more likely to aspire to be it and it’s about those aspirations where a role model can have such an importance. I think there’s an unspoken expectation that women are supposed to be humble and modest and not push themselves forward. In being very visible, you’re the opposite of those things. I think our challenge as a society is to accept that we can be visible, that we can take the respect and recognition for our achievements. The unspoken expectation that women should be modest means that people are less likely to push themselves forward and people are less likely to sell themselves well because they have always been taught to be modest. It’s totally unconscious.  Thinking of the ‘glass ceiling’, the impact of this can be huge; consider deciding to apply for a job, the application and interview, and being recognised for your achievements and considered promotable.”

Hazel described the concept of the ‘Leaky STEM Pipeline’ and the cultural assumptions that lie behind the dearth of women in STEM:

 “The concept of the leaky STEM Pipeline shows that around the age of 14 girls are beginning to lose interest in STEM, so by the time they are doing GCSEs, they are less engaged in STEM. The number of girls who go forward to do A levels in STEM is much reduced compared to the number of boys, as a percentage there’s a massive reduction. From that point, at every stage as you progress through academia, women drop out of the pipeline – all the way up to Professorships. The questions is why?”

Underlying this is the gendered way in which children’s interests are culturally encoded in our society. Hazel explains:

“When my eldest was 6 or 7 she said to me ‘Mummy, boys are good at numbers and girls are good at drawing.’ And I thought “how could she say this? I really didn’t know where this had come from and it made me realise that the culture behind women in STEM is so ingrained throughout our whole society that it had already taught a 6 or 7 year old that women don’t do STEM. She wasn’t using that language but that’s what she was talking about. And my concern was that if she doesn’t think girls are good at this then she’s not going to try at it and it will become a self-fulfilling prophecy – she won’t be good at it because she won’t be trying at it. Going into a STEM career might not ever be an option for her if at the age of 7 she’s decided that it’s not an option, and she’s no good at it because societally girls ‘don’t do numbers’. I think it’s incumbent on every single person to try and challenge that – to watch our language and be supportive. It’s very easy to say things like “that one’s there for the boys, this is a girls thing” and it has a huge influence on our children.”

Hazel described one of her initiatives at IPO to challenge this culture and engage more girls in STEM:

“One of the programmes that I introduced at the IPO was “Girls into STEM” events. These event were bringing about 30 school children from year 7 and year 8 onsite and giving them a fun day of STEM – showing them what the IPO was about, showing them what a STEM career is and showing them that people like them can do STEM. Really trying to be part of the ‘science capital’, to show that STEM is fun and they can do it.”

We asked Hazel about her own experiences as a woman working in STEM:

“Whilst I see there is inequality systemically and culturally in terms of women going into STEM and numbers of women in STEM, at an individual level I have always had positive experiences with all of my colleagues regardless of my gender, I have never experienced any discrimination and IPO is a nice to work. IPO wants to be a brilliant place to work and the odd thing about the brilliant place to work strategy aim is that we are already a brilliant place to work! What more can we do? But there’s always more, and I love that that we strive for brilliance because that so closely aligns with my values and who I am. I am rarely the only woman in a room of men, but I’m used to working in an environment where I am outnumbered. But in some groups that I work in like my training team, women actually outnumber the men.”

Hazel explained why she is so passionate about gender equality in STEM:

“I’ve been appalled at the gender stereotyping, often by other parents, by shops, by our whole culture. That only boys can be interested in dinosaurs, space and building things and girls can only have kittens and fairies in shades of pink. And because this is our culture, it pervades everything including girls pursuing a STEM education and ultimately affecting women’s aspirations in their STEM careers. It’s just not good enough. My daughter is now 11 and I do not like the systemically biased world she is growing up in. That is why I’m passionate about gender equality in STEM. There is so much more to do, to change ingrained attitudes and incorrect assumptions, to improve systems and processes and to support both existing women in STEM and future women in STEM and we all have a role to play.”

Finally, we asked Hazel what advice she would give to a woman or person of minority gender considering a STEM career:

“Go for it, don’t let anything hold you back, certainly don’t let the little voice in your head that seeds doubt hold you back – ignore that and do it anyway!”

Thank you so much Hazel for sharing your inspiring story with us.

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VERCIDA works with over one hundred clients who are committed to creating an inclusive work environment. If you are an employer and interested in working with VERCIDA to promote your diversity and inclusion initiatives and attract the best candidates, please email [email protected] for more information.

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