Experiences of women in STEM: working in the scientific civil service

On average around 30 per cent of the world’s researchers in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) are women. From educational access to negotiating a career in a male-dominated environment, Emmeline Ledgerwood explores some of the influences, opportunities and challenges that defined women’s careers in the scientific civil service during the second half of the 20th century.

‘A good job with prospects’: that was how a career in the scientific civil service was promoted to sixth formers in the early 1980s. In a BBC film for schools, a twenty-something Susan James is featured taking noise measurements in an airborne Sea King helicopter and then processing the data in an acoustics lab at the Royal Aircraft Establishment (RAE) in Farnborough.

RAE was a vast organisation that was one of many research establishments that ‘belonged’ to government departments. Scientific civil servants at RAE worked primarily on research commissioned by the Ministry of Defence; this ranged from aerodynamics to aircraft systems and weaponry and involved experimental work in laboratories, building prototypes, running trials in the field and data analysis.

James went on to have a 40-year career at Farnborough in acoustics research, becoming an international expert in the design, development and testing of devices to protect aircrew from the risk of hearing damage. She explained how she came to join RAE in 1979:

When I was choosing my O levels … there was this huge push to get girls to go into the science and maths type subjects. […] Dad introduced me to Dr Graham Rood, who was heading the acoustics group at RAE, and he helped me with my A level project ... and that was it.[i]

James’ interview is part of a wider collection of interviews with government scientists; six of those interviews are with women who worked at either RAE or the Building Research Establishment (BRE) in Watford during the second half of the twentieth century. While the interviews focus on organisational change that led to the privatisation of their workplaces, memories of childhood and education are intertwined with those of working life. The discussions reveal some of the influences, opportunities and challenges that defined their careers as women in science.

Why did women embark on a career in STEM?

Sarah Herbert’s career at RAE saw her lead research into composite materials. She spoke with great affection about her Physics teacher, John Moorcroft, as having a crucial influence on her entry into the world of materials science.

Herbert also received support and encouragement from her father, however her mother's attitude was very different, expressed when Herbert was awarded her PhD in 1970 from the Faculty of Technology at the Victoria University of Manchester:

My parents did come up for my PhD graduation at which point my mother made it very clear, ‘I just want you to know, I shall never address you or a letter as ‘Dr’. You’re ‘Mrs’, it is much more important to be ‘Mrs’ than be ‘Dr’.’ That was what my mother said … yes! [laughs].[ii]

Carol Atkinson, however, followed in the footsteps of both her father, an electronics engineer, and her aunt, a maths teacher. ‘I knew that I wanted to go to university, and my aunt had been to Oxford and so she always encouraged me from being quite young to think about university’.[iii] Atkinson studied Chemistry at Oxford, and worked in the electronics research team at GEC Hirst Research Centre in the 1980s before joining BRE in 1990.

Even a decade later the decision to go to university was not such a common route as it is today. One interviewee [anon], who studied Chemistry at university and worked at RAE as an analytical chemist, remembered her parents’ reaction when she applied in the late 1980s:

It hadn’t really occurred to them before that that I would go to university because that wasn’t something that happened in their generation. I was the first person to go.[1]

What did a career in the scientific civil service offer women?

For those with ambitions for a career in science yet no intention of going to university, one of the attractions of a job in the scientific civil service was the opportunity for further education. James completed HNC qualifications and an MSc in the 1980s, just as Shirley Jenkins was sent by RAE in the 1960s to study Applied Physics at Northampton Polytechnic, becoming one of the first students in the country to gain a Diploma of Technology.[iv]

New starters such as James often regarded their senior colleagues as members of their fathers’ generation and benefitted from their encouragement.

He wouldn’t let me rest, he kicked my backside all the way through all my promotions and everything, I look back on it and think, everybody needs a mentor. If I hadn’t met Graham Rood, I don’t know where I’d be.[i]

Equipment made for men

Early in her career at Farnborough Jenkins became a flight test observer for the team that was measuring transmission of solar radiation through the atmosphere at infra-red wavelengths, later working on the programme that used those measurements to develop the use of infra-red in defence countermeasures. For Jenkins, the role involved the exhilaration of flying around the world, logging around 1,000 hours in the air. However her experience of ill-fitting equipment shows how she was operating in a working environment designed for men.

Balancing a career and caring responsibilities

What Jenkins also discovered was that there were inherent constraints on career progression posed by prevailing attitudes to working mothers. Both she and Herbert embarked on having families before equal opportunities legislation enacted in the 1970s had gained traction.

I didn’t have a driving ambition because I had children so there were always going to be sort of limitations in what I could aspire to. […] I wasn’t regarded as promotable because at some stage I was going to leave, even though I had two children and came back to work straight away, they still never really took me seriously […] they didn’t feel they could trust me that I was going to be there and do it at the time. [iv]
If there was any women in the department, the moment they got pregnant they left and didn’t come back to work. It was expected that you would leave. In those days there was no equality of women, and women didn’t work and generally didn’t have childcare.[ii]

Herbert recalled that she took the issue of childcare to her head of department, who ‘patted my head, as if I was a little dog’ when he agreed that she could work part-time to accommodate her caring responsibilities. If women did return to work after having children, they often had to accept a position with less responsibility or status.

From the 1990s there was a growing awareness of the need to improve opportunities for women, with progress demonstrated by James’ mention of the provision of on-site childcare and six months’ maternity leave.

Working in a male-dominated environment

The gender imbalance of the working environment remained a defining characteristic, and one interviewee described arriving at RAE as like ‘walking into a monastery’.

There here weren’t many female scientists. […] I remember having a cup of tea in the staff room one day and there were about four women in there and the older female senior scientific officer said, ‘Well, this is unusual isn’t it, we’re all women!’ So, it was a bit intimidating, actually.

Some newcomers found ways to fit in to this male-dominated world:

I wouldn’t say boo to a goose. […] I squirrelled myself away in the lab with all the instrumentation, … nobody knew what they had and I learnt a lot. Once I got to know the equipment … I very quickly got to know more about what …we had and what it could do than some of the more senior scientists. That sort of helped establish me in that environment.[i]

As a manager, Herbert devised strategies to foster co-operation from the men in her team:

I always managed men, I never had any women scientists who worked for me […] I didn’t feel like a pioneer, I knew that I was a woman coming into a group that was not used to having a woman section leader. I was very careful about the fact that I was a woman. I did do it differently, I think, to a way a man did it, because I took the attitude that I was there to work with them, not on top of them, […] I always made a point of treating us like we were a team and that we were working together. […] I did that on purpose because I was a woman, it was a strategy.[ii]

James described some of the ingrained behaviours of the men she worked with.

Some women such as James progressed to positions of standing in the professional scientific community, but there have always been many women who have occupied other roles in the working world of science who are far less visible, such as technicians, cleaners, administrators and librarians.[3]

Atkinson’s clip refers to the supporting role played by technicians, not just in the scientific work, as this quote from another interviewee also shows.

I shared an office with an EW [experimental worker, or technician] and she was a little lady, a fantastic lady, they’d owned pubs and things like that, she was a character in her own right, Wynn, so I had a second mother, in a polite way, keeping an eye on me. She was fantastic.[4]

Other interviewees commented on the special skills that EWs had:

The girls were really very good as technicians […] they were often very much more precise and more conscientious, they treated it as a skill rather than as a job in a way.[5]
That was partly where our experimental worker came in, sometimes I would get large ingots of an alloy and she’d have to go and drill it for me … we had a workshop in the basement with machine tools in, with a milling machine and a lathe and a pillar drill.[6]

Women’s careers in the scientific civil service were multi-dimensional, yet they were to be severely disrupted with the organisational changes that were rolled out during the 1990s. New management processes steered both men and women’s careers in different directions to those anticipated at the outset. The organisations were rationalised and slimmed down, with administrative staff and EWs among the first to face redundancy.

Sarah Herbert left research to take a job in MOD in London. Carol Atkinson thrived as she went on to lead the BRE’s new certification business. Both Shirley Jenkins and Susan James found themselves still working for MOD but in the RAE’s reimagined successor organisations post-privatisation. The analytical chemist [anon] eventually took voluntary redundancy when relocation became incompatible with family life, yet her assessment of working as a woman in the scientific civil service was that it was ‘scientist first, gender second.’ James ‘loved every minute of my (sic) job as a civil servant’, another felt that, ‘although there were ups and downs there were definitely times when work felt like a paying hobby. You can’t really get much better than that’.[7]


This article focuses on four interviews given by the following women:

[i] Interview with Susan James (2018), C1802/08.

[ii] Interview with Sarah Herbert (2019), C1802/13.

[iii] Interview with Carol Atkinson (2018), C1802/06.

[iv] Interview with Shirley Jenkins (2019), C1802/17.


[1] Interview with anonymous (2019), C1802/16: Track 1 [00:16:00 - 00:16:29].

[2] Sally Horrocks and Thomas Lean, ‘Doing It for Britain: Science and Service in Oral History with Government Scientists’, in Don Leggett and Charlotte Sleigh (eds), Scientific Governance in Britain, 1914-79 (Manchester, 2016), pp. 161–78.

[3] J. M. Hartley and E. M. Tansey, ‘White Coats and No Trousers: Narrating the Experiences of Women Technicians in Medical Laboratories, 1930–90’, Notes and Records: The Royal Society Journal of the History of Science, 69, no. 1 (20 March 2015), pp. 25–36; Helen Plant, ‘Women Scientists in British Industry: Technical Library and Information Workers, c.1918-1960’, Women’s History Review, 14, no. 2 (19 December 2006), pp. 301–32.

[4] Interview with David Dunford (2018), C1802/02: Track 2 [00:38:14].

[5] Interview with Anthony Bravery (2019), C1802/18: Track 5 [00:01:18 - 00:02:03].

[6] Interview with anonymous (2019), C180216: Track 2 [00:39:19].

[7] Ibid., Track 6 [00:22:59].

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  • Emmeline Ledgerwood
  • Emmeline Ledgerwood is an AHRC collaborative PhD candidate with the British Library and the University of Leicester. Her research looks at how the privatisation policies of the 1980s and 1990s affected government research establishments and the scientists who worked in them. She also writes about parliamentary history, including the scrutiny of science at Westminster and political ambition in women. Her interviews for the History of Parliament oral history project (C1503) and with Conservative party activists (C1688) are archived in the BL sound collections. Emmeline is co-convenor of the University of Leicester oral history reading group @hypirohrg which welcomes new members.

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