Celebrating Women in STEM – in conversation with Fiona Highet

9 months ago by Andrew Farquharson
Fiona Highet Interview 1020

In recognition that 2020 is a year of deep reflection on ourselves and society we are engaging in conversations with a range of women across STEM careers to find out about their lived experiences. We want to understand and recognise that whilst female inclusivity and success in STEM careers has advanced greatly since Ada Lovelace’s time, there are still multiple barriers and challenges that women encounter throughout their careers. We hope by engaging in these conversations we can promote positive change and make STEM careers accessible for more women.

In this blog, we sat down withFiona Highet, a Senior Entomologist working with SASA - a division of the Scottish Government responsible for science and advice for agriculture. Fiona spent 20 years building her career, from washing soil samples to receiving an MBE for services to bee health (a cornerstone of her entomology work), whilst seeing a steady transition from the entrenched "only middle-aged men can give agricultural advice" attitudes.

Q. Can you tell us a little about your background and career to date? What attracted you to the STEM sector and what do you think makes it a good place for women?

Okay, well I’ve always loved science and biology in particular – I used to rockpool near my uncles house every time we visited. I went on to study zoology at university, then took an admin job briefly to support my partner’s career; quickly finding a government science position which was much more fulfilling and starting at ‘the bottom’ washing soil for statutory testing for potato pests. I found my home there and have been with the team for over 20 years – working my way up to Senior Entomologist at SASA where I manage a team of my own to support agriculture and bee health. I love working in science as I’ve managed to carve my own space and find like-minded people to work with, many of whom I’ve known from day one. I’ve found my experience as a mother and ‘home manager’ have given me loads of useful skills in project management. Ground-breaking science relies on innovative thinking so women in the workplace and overall diversity is crucial to success.

Q. Is there a clear difference in your experiences of being a female in the sector at the beginning of your career and now?

Yes, I think so. I work in agriculture, and the people we work with (farmers) still expect a middle-aged man to advise them. Over the years these preconceptions have definitely been challenged, particularly in government science and now some of the most important government scientists in agriculture, including the Chief Veterinary Officer for Scotland, are female.

Q. If you were with a group of peers this evening and talking openly about this topic, what would be the key issues discussed?

Ooh, tricky one! I think we still face a lot of challenges, and I’m sure these would come up. I feel we still have to prove ourselves to be equally well received as an expert, although part of that belief is probably driven by imposter syndrome, so there would be some space for a bit mutual appreciation of our respective expertise.

There are still a few ‘dinosaurs’ out there (especially outside SASA in academic circles), so they would get a special mention, especially if I was sharing my experience with early career researchers.

I also think that parenthood (and a female-biased childcare system) take us out of the game at a very crucial point of a scientific career, and this may be the biggest hurdle for those who start strong. Whilst I thoroughly believe that motherhood has improved my ability as a scientist, I certainly wasn’t in a place to to apply for career development opportunities or put in extra hours writing grant proposals whilst juggling nursery and sleepless nights! So, the challenges of work/life balance would probably come up too.

Q. What role do you think male colleagues have in helping organisations achieve greater gender balance? Can they be part of a solution to equality?

Some of my best mentors and supporters over the years have been men – with few female leaders around me they have been invaluable to my career. I suspect I needed a little more reassurance than my male counterparts, so I think changing the culture to be a bit more supportive and less competitive is something that could be embraced by all. The bottom line is we need to treat our colleagues as scientists regardless of sex, value, talent and support each other!

Oh, and male colleagues can make a difference at an organisational level by questioning imbalances where they occur.

Q. How do you think COVID-19 has impacted gender diversity in STEM and the capacity to fulfil potential?

Sadly, I think it’ll take a huge knock. School closures continue for many of my overseas colleagues, and many women in my workplace have taken time off to cover home-schooling this year. Additionally, there’s fewer job opportunities at the moment, and this is likely to remain in place until things return to normal. I’ve been really grateful that in my workplace our caring responsibilities have come first at no detriment to the staff involved but doubt that all places will be the same.

Q. Who do you think are the most inspiring women in STEM today?

Oh tricky one! Well I firmly believe in good mentorship, so I’ll mention a woman who has really inspired and mentored me. Sheila Voas is the Chief Veterinary Officer for Scotland and a fantastic role model, who will always take time out to support her team. She is brilliant at her job, shares her work/life balance openly on twitter and is very humble. And I’ve never met Nancy Moran, based in Texas, but her science has inspired me throughout my career. I always get excited when I see her lab have published a new paper.

Q. Do you have any other views on the topic?

Finally, just be supportive of your colleagues. Science is tough, tiring and can be very critical, so there’s no place for unnecessary competition in the workplace. Try to find a mentor – male or female – to guide you through this, and if you are approached, try to find the time to mentor.

​The information contained in this article does not constitute business advice and should not be acted on as such. This content is based on our understanding in October 2020. Head Resourcing are not liable for the information contained on any third-party websites linked to this article.

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