Rachel has worked in the legal profession, social justice and science and knows from experience that stereotyping and myths in society often prevent young people from underrepresented groups seeing the opportunities there for a good future. An important part of her work at IOP is to increase diversity and tackle the challenges that prevent underrepresented groups from studying physics and working in an inclusive environment.
When I was in my teens, I read a piece of paper which said that I was “hard to place”. It had been written around the time I was born to a single mother in the 1960s and referred to my mixed-race heritage. It didn’t upset me because I had been adopted into a happy family, but those words struck a chord and started a life of challenging unfairness in society which prevents people from seeing opportunities and belonging.
It was all a bit unstructured at the beginning but eventually I settled into a career where, initially, I joined an international NGO in the legal profession working alongside senior commercial lawyers from across the world. That was the most incredible experience. It helped me to broaden my horizons from growing up in a small town and gave me a solid foundation to understand different cultures, the complexities of how politics, economics and social changes can impact people’s lives, and the absolute importance of fighting to uphold the rule of law.
From there I moved into CEO roles in social justice and human rights. I had the opportunity to talk with some incredible leaders who were a force for good including Nelson Mandela who was the epitome of a responsible leader. But I also saw the aftermath from leaders who caused immense harm and suffering to people.
Eight years ago the Institute of Physics (IOP) seemed such a unique opportunity. It has proved varied and one day I will be drawing on my international experience to look at improving physics research funding between the UK and Africa for climate solutions. The next day I’ll be looking at how to tackle the complex challenges that cause the lack of diversity and problems with inclusion for those studying and working in physics. I started as interim Chief Operating Office in 2014 and in 2018 I was appointed Deputy Chief Executive. Despite no background in physics, it has been such interesting work to create change in how people understand the value that physics brings to society and our economy.
It surprises people that there are around 2 million physics based jobs in the UK, and we have more demand for jobs than supply of skills so there are important problems to be fixed if we are to find solutions to health, climate and so on where there is a reliance on physics. I think IOP is the place that has pulled together the many threads of my career.
I’m not sure I have ever planned. I’ve tended to follow my nose for interesting opportunities. But Dad was a lawyer and my mum was a social worker so it’s fair to say there might have been some parental influence! I certainly didn’t lean towards physics at school in part because it just wasn’t taught very well. Roll forward a few decades and there have been a lot of improvements, but the number of girls studying physics at the age of 16 remains stubbornly low and it becomes even worse when you look at young people from disadvantaged backgrounds, disabled, LGTBQ and those from a Black Caribbean heritage.
So no, I didn’t leave school thinking I’d be working with physicists and that is certainly the career move that surprises people the most. But I find it fascinating. The problems of underrepresentation that I see in physics start in society and if we leave them unchecked, they will go back into society. Everyone loses. That is a huge motivation to be campaigning for change in a science that has such a fundamental role to play in how we all live.
If I had a career plan, it comes from that belief that there are enormous benefits by working in the charity sector. Now I’m in a fortunate position where I can devote more time to other organisations in different sectors. For example, I chair Hibiscus, a charity for migrant women caught up in the immigration system. That system is deeply flawed and disadvantages women. It’s what we call the “double disadvantage” where race and gender leaves women incredibly vulnerable because they are unable to access support when they need to try to rebuild their lives. I am also a member of the External Advisory Board for the Quantum Hub on Sensors and Timing which is part of the UK’s national quantum technology programme.
Lots! Growing up as a mixed race child in 1960s Britain was not easy, and I faced racist comments early on in life and sexism at points through my career, but it has served to make me more determined to tackle these biases. The older I get, the less inclined I am to sugar coat things so I tend to give as good as I get these days and my messages about the change that is needed are getting shorter and blunt. I’m one of those people who should not be left alone on twitter! A challenge I still face is that people tend to pigeonhole me.
It’s easy to label me as the social justice activist working for the Institute of Physics. There is some truth but my background is much broader. I do think it is important to show the strong economic argument for improving diversity and inclusion and make sure our activism is underpinned by good scientific evidence. But when people make comments, I often wonder whether I might just still be a bit “hard to place” and I try to shrug it off.
Perhaps the biggest challenge that women still face, even more than their male counterparts, is that they pick up the lion’s share of caring responsibilities, have career breaks and then re-enter the workplace which is no long a level playing field. Women are not the problem. In physics, it’s the working environment – the processes, practices and systems including funding need to change. Add intersectionality and the situation just becomes worse. If we don’t change that, we will lose physicists from underrepresented groups in their early career and particularly those in research. That will have an impact. We have to show the value of diversity and have honest conversations to understand the problems and to fix them. It’s the responsibility of organisations like the IOP to call for changes, it’s not for the women and other underrepresented groups to fix the problems.
I am exceptionally proud of being part of the team that launched Limit Less, the IOP campaign that says that young people from underrepresented groups must have the opportunity to study physics at aged 16. I introduced campaigning to IOP because it is such a powerful way to understand a problem and create a solution based on clear, simple messages. The team are working incredibly hard to dismantle the stereotypes and myths that exist and doing that in an imaginative way to influence those who influence young people – parents and families, communities, social media, media and of course there needs to be change to aspects of Government policy.
Some of our successes might seem like small victories but each adds up to young people seeing the opportunities that come from studying physics. It’s really difficult to find good physics content on media platforms, so we have worked with YouTube to make sure that that good content is accessible on their new learning platform. The National Literacy Trust now have information on physics’ careers aimed at parents, carers and young people to show the hugely diverse jobs you can do by studying physics. Influencers on tik tok have helped us to reach over 700,000 young people by using our campaign messages in a way that is fun. The mainstream media are starting to take notice and that’s important to getting our campaign messages out to more people.
It’s important to remember that success rarely comes easily and sometimes doors will shut to things you want to achieve. I’ve certainly had moments when that’s happened and it’s tough. But I try to keep a focus on what can come next and remember that I can re-write the next chapter and still make it a good one. By doing that I’ve often ended up with what I need and it turns out to be completely different to what I originally wanted. The one thing I haven’t compromised on throughout my career is my absolute belief in the importance of diversity and inclusion. That isn’t a so called “woke” agenda which seems to me such a lazy and dismissive expression that perhaps has its roots in the fear of being excluded. We are only going to be successful if more people from across society are part of change and we embrace our differences.
I have always looked at mentoring and being mentored as a continual process. Sometimes its good to formalise those relationships, but I have tended to seek out people who inspire me, look at things differently and are not afraid to tell me the truth. Honesty is important and sometimes the thoughts of others has seemed harsh but often turned out to be the areas that helped me think different. I still draw on a network of people from the legal profession as well as social justice and now in science. The temptation is to think that being mentored should always come from those with more experience. Some of my best mentors have been from people in my teams. They have always left me with new ways of thinking when I have faced challenging situations whether career choices or in a particular area of work. For my part, I’ve always enjoyed mentoring young people who are trying to overcome barriers to education or employment. That started when I was 17 years old and I volunteered at a local refugee camp for young people from Vietnam, known as the “boat people” and it has continued throughout my career.
I’ve lost count of the number of young people I’ve mentored but I still find it hugely rewarding to support young talent to overcome the blocks and barriers that society puts in their way.
According to McKinsey & Company’s 2019 Women in the Workplace report, companies that are gender and ethnically diverse are up to 35% more likely to outperform than the industry median.
This must start with the leadership.
Boards and CEO’s have to step up and take responsibility. There is always a danger that diversity fatigue sets in and that allows excuses to be made – it’s too difficult, we can’t find the candidates, we’ve got a few women so what’s the problem. We have to keep the subject high on the agenda and remember that if we look at intersectionality, the inequality becomes much more pronounced.
A couple of years ago, the charity where I Chair the Board appointed a new CEO. Despite being in the midst of pandemic with a lot of uncertainties, the Board talked through organisation risk and looked at the future landscape we would be working in. That led us to take a unanimous decision to appoint a woman who was a first time CEO because she brought so much fresh thinking and energy to the charity and its future that just couldn’t be taught. It came from who she is and her background and experiences. She is an incredible CEO and the charity’s funding, impact and public profile are rising.
Don’t give up if things go wrong and don’t panic. We all have times when things get difficult. Try to slow down, seek out your network of trusted friends and advisors and surround yourself with people who will help you to see different ways. That will get you through challenging times. Listen to their advice but also listen to yourself. Carve out some quiet time. And don’t feel you need to conform. Do your job, interact with people, bring knowledge and expertise and know that you can do all of that and still wear Converse.
I’ve been so lucky to have a career spanning three really powerful pillars in society. Having worked in the legal profession, social justice and now science, I know there are opportunities to achieve systemic change to diversity and inclusion and answer difficult ethical questions. This is vital if we are to face up to the economic and society challenges of climate change.
We are going to have to make some difficult choices and changes to how we live and work. We are already seeing a far greater demand on those of us in leadership roles to think about who we are responsible to. That must include our employees, customers, clients, members and broader society in making these complex decisions.
Diversity on Boards and Executive roles is no longer a nice-to-achieve. It is a must do. I don’t think we can talk about any one of those ingredients in isolation. I want to see lawyers, scientists, business leaders, financial and social justice experts all working together particularly around complex issues of sustainability, and not just the old guard but with the next generation. Someone recently suggested I start a multidisciplinary movement for change.
I haven’t decided whether my next challenge is a few more pages of the current chapter or a new one, but I will be making sure it includes all those ingredients.