Let’s shatter the glass ceiling once and for all

It’s incredible to think that we’re discussing equal opportunities (or lack of) today. But a large imbalance in innovation still lingers between men and women. Award-winning scientist and company director, Dr Zoe Tolkien, talks to Karen Southern about her ‘levelling-up’ ambitions for female entrepreneurs.

Dr. Tolkien (and yes, she is related to the great writer) is passionate about her work and her determination to attract more women into entrepreneurship.

“It’s sad that we are brought up to feel we’re not good enough. Too often I see online talks aimed at women in business addressing the ‘imposter syndrome’. I think change can only happen by transforming the way we educate and talk to our girls from a young age,” she explains.

Zoe is a recent winner of Innovate UK’s Women in Innovation Awards, and committed some of her prize fund towards mentoring and training her firm’s first female apprentice mechanical engineer, who will ultimately take on a senior role.

The funding will also contribute to Zoe’s pioneering work in the silicon carbide semiconductor industry, in support of sustainable resources.

Advanced Furnace Technology Ltd (Aftech) in Cambridge, has been family owned for over 40 years. Zoe herself gained a PhD in Biological Sciences at the city university and spent the first part of her career in academia and clinical research.

But when her father announced plans to retire, Zoe’s career path did a complete 180. “We had a very big decision to make: keep going or sell up. Either way, it wasn’t easy. But my father created a very successful business and we didn’t want to think about a takeover, so here I am!

“Engineering science was a totally new area for me, but once you have higher level research skills, you can apply them anywhere – and having a curious mind and lots of motivation help!”

As it turns out, her father remains firmly invested in Aftech, but Zoe – as Director of Research – is using her research skills and experience to steer it in a whole new direction.

“We are working on a revolutionary graphite coating for the silicon carbide semiconductor market, which concentrates on renewable energy and power electronics in support of the government’s Net Zero aims. Innovate UK scale-up growth advisors are also helping move our R&D into a marketable business area.”

Growing up, Zoe recalls the workshop environment as being very male orientated.

“I’ve been championing women in our company since I joined, and we now have Sandra Nechibvute as Operations Director. She started as temporary maternity cover, but Aftech saw her potential and supported her through a STEM science degree with the Open University. She is now an integral part of our research and development projects and eventually she’ll run the company with me.

“I see Sandra and Caitlin (our apprentice engineer) as our future, and I hope to have a lot of women coming through who won’t just be senior in the company, but also technically trained.”

Zoe acknowledges that stereotypes still exist. “Particularly at conferences, you can get treated like the ‘little woman’. It might be 2022 but subtle biases are everywhere. It’s a slow burner. However, our female employees are very much supported by the company, they prove they can do the job, and they are accepted as such.”

Short term though, the elephant in the room shows no sign of budging. While this year’s Rose Review on female entrepreneurship reveals a record high (20 per cent) of UK businesses are female led, the pandemic took a heavy toll on women entrepreneurs. The disproportionate burden of caring meant 62 per cent of their businesses were less likely to recover than their male counterparts. This is despite the fact that female entrepreneurs could add £250bn to the economy if they had the same start-up rates as men.

So for every step forward, it’s another one back. Where do we go from here?

Zoe points out there are lots of fantastic workplace initiatives, but for real and sustainable change, “we need to start young. I think one of the biggest challenges is self-belief.

“The innovation space is very male-dominated and women don’t often see themselves represented or feel inspired to get involved. Schools, parents and communities should encourage girls to innovate, be entrepreneurial and to lead.

“These initiatives have to be accessible to all girls in all schools across the UK. They shouldn’t just focus on the ‘forward-thinking’ schools or the independent ones with extra resources to spare.

“I strongly believe that girls (all children, in fact) should have at least two or three career sessions every school year, starting from a young age. Girls should see the opportunities and know that they are every bit as practical and technically accomplished as boys.”

Zoe initially applied to the Women in Innovation programme to access a wider platform for action. “I’ve been working from within to promote women, but I wanted to reach out further.”

Since winning the award, she’s been in contact with local initiatives, such as Ann Bailey of Form the Future in Cambridge, whose work experience schemes show young people the world of career opportunities on offer.

“Hopefully, we can all work together to get funding for a pilot scheme in the East of England, and investigate the challenges for young girls accessing STEM careers. We also aim to make policy recommendations to government and perhaps roll out the initiative across the whole UK.”

Zoe is a big champion of apprenticeships, having faced a struggle to attract interest in recent roles. “It’s a puzzle why young people leave university saddled with huge debts when there is a chance to work and learn on the job and even take an apprenticeship through to degree level. There’s a breakdown in the system somewhere in not telling children about these opportunities.”

Aftech meanwhile goes from strength to strength. Zoe has also won an Innovate UK Future Leaders Fellowship to fund the company’s £1.2m project into the future of semiconductor technology.

Zoe concludes: “To any aspiring female entrepreneurs I would say it’s a really exciting area to work in. Personally I can’t think of anything better than turning your idea into a reality. I think if you have a novel idea, it’s definitely worth pursuing. My advice would be to carve your own innovation journey. Don’t be distracted by others, trust yourself and go with your gut.”

More information at Advanced Furnace Technology.

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