With preparations underway for the Wales STEM Awards 2021, we couldn’t help but reflect on the incredible achievements of our 2020 winners.

Following the inaugural award ceremony last year, we caught up with the class of 2020 to share their stories with you.

First up we have Hazel Thorpe from Intellectual Property Office who won the STEM Woman of the Year award.

Hazel received this award for her critical work over the years in moving forward a number of projects and schemes which have positively supported and cultivated staff at the IPO. She also received recognition for her work as Senior Patent Examiner in the IPO, Patent Examiner Training Champion, Chair of the Women’s Network, Government Science and Engineering Profession Champion, Diversity and Inclusivity Champion in the Patents and Trade Marks and Designs Division.

How long have you worked at the IPO?

18 years

What did you study and where?

I studied BSc Geology at Durham.  My PhD, also in Geology, was at Portsmouth.

Did you always know you wanted to work in the STEM field?

No, my first love as a young teenager was in Egyptology and Archaeology.  It was only when I was choosing my A levels that I realised there was something called “Geology”, which encapsulated all of the aspects of my geography lessons which I’d loved and none of the parts that I’d disliked.  

Who inspires you in the STEM field?

Stephen Hawking inspired me as regardless of physical adversity, he still kept chasing the science.

The Hidden Figures of Nasa also inspired me, the women who did the maths which enabled space flight, working in a very different world to the one we know now.

What is your role at IPO?

I am a senior patent examiner. I search and examine patent applications to ensure we grant patents which are new and inventive.  I’m also the patent examiner training champion, I have strategic responsibility for specialist patent examiner training.

Tell us about the various initiatives you are involved with (e.g Women’s Network) and why you got involved?

I am the Chair of the Women’s Inclusive Network (WIN) at the Intellectual Property Office (IPO) and part of the Government Science and Engineering Profession, Inclusion Women’s Working Group. I am involved because I want to see change and working within these forums gives me a chance to make a difference for people in the IPO and throughout government.  

I grew up in the 80’s and 90’s thinking that feminism was a thing of the past: in the early 20th century suffragettes went on hunger strike to get the vote, in the 60’s women marched through streets burning bras. I thought that feminism had achieved its aims of equality and equal opportunities. Then I realised that the outcomes today don’t play that out.

I heard what my children were saying and saw the UK gender equality data for CEOs and for STEM, I learned about the “leaky STEM pipeline”, and I was so disappointed and frustrated as I realised that we’re not in an equal society and that decades of feminism haven’t yet achieved their aim. 

That’s why I’m involved. To me, feminism is about creating equal outcomes for all genders, recognising that feminism isn’t one size fits all and that we ALL have a part to play.

To me, the role of WIN and the GSE women’s working group is to help achieve equal gender outcomes, and to challenge and break down the gendered assumptions, stereotypes and mindsets that block the way.

What does winning a Wales STEM Awards mean to you?

I’m totally blown away by receiving this award. To be honest, I was dead chuffed to be nominated. To win is simply immense and receiving congratulations from so many friends and colleagues makes it even more so! I feel reinvigorated and reenergised, and am now thinking – what next?

What are your thoughts on the gender imbalance in the STEM sector?

It makes me sad that there is sometimes an inevitability and acceptance of it. “That’s just the way it is”. This attitude perpetuates the imbalance. I think the international data is very interesting.  Some countries prove that there can be gender equality in STEM. Take a look at the research by the World Economic Forum (WEF).  We need to understand why there is an imbalance, here in our country and our culture.  The World Economic Forum asserts it’s because “Entrenched Gender stereotypes and gender bias are driving girls and women away from pursuing careers in science-related fields.” That’s what we need to challenge.  I fear it’s going to take a very long time to change.

What in your opinion can be done to encourage more diversity in the STEM sector?

I believe we need to think intersectionally and we need excellent data.  As organisations, we need to look at diversity data to show us how well we’re doing, seeking data which highlights particular topics. For instance, is there a gender difference in recruitment at application and at interview?  What happens if you layer ethnicity data on top of gender data?  Data enables us to take a really robust look at processes, then we can make changes which support inclusion and diversity. 

We need to drive cultural change so that people are bought into system/process change and so the stereotypes and bias drop away. We can support this by myth busting, explaining what is currently happening and why it needs to change. When we talk about gender imbalance, we need to recognise that gender equality will improve things for men too.  It’s in everyone’s interest: all people, whole organisations, even the economy.

What, in your opinion, can be done to inspire more young people to pursue careers in STEM?

There’s already many organisations working to inspire young people into STEM and this is a great thing, the more diverse the experiences of young people the better.  The Aspires research by UCL showed that multiple STEM experiences, additional to schooling makes a real difference.  So why aren’t we seeing a more significant change?  Echoing the WEF findings (above), I believe the answer lies in our culture. We need to address the societal messages that our children receive outside of school.  

Each and every one of us has a role to play here and it’s needed long before young people are ready to think about careers.  My daughter ‘knew’ by the age of 6 that “boys do numbers and girls are good at drawing”.  We are completely immersed in a culture which says some things are for girls and different things are for boys and unfortunately STEM is one of those things.  If you need evidence, look at children’s clothing.  The STEM messages, the dinosaurs, the planets, and galaxies, they’re all in the boys’ section, not the girls. Children understand the messages around them that STEM is for boys, at a very young age.  These messages are reiterated in toys, television, books.  We ALL have a role to play as allies to the children around us.  They need to hear from people close to them that STEM is for everyone.  Children need to know that “girls do numbers too”.

The story is similar for young people.  We know there’s a major difference in the percentage of girls to boys choosing STEM A levels, but research shows that interest levels dwindle much earlier.  Do you have friends and family with young teenagers?  Do they know that you work in STEM? Can you share some stories with them?  Help them understand that it’s enjoyable, rewarding and it’s a career.

You might be interested in the “Let toys be toys”, “Let books be books,”, “Let clothes be clothes” campaigns.

What, in your opinion, can be done to inspire more females to pursue careers in STEM?

Data on the leaky STEM pipeline shows it continues into professional life.  We should be asking ourselves, why do female professionals leave STEM and why do their careers not develop as rapidly as their male counterparts?  This is a huge topic. 

I believe that sharing childcare responsibilities equally – which requires systemic and cultural change – would have an enormous impact on career development.  There’s also a question for us all around confidence, speaking up and putting oneself forward, and not doubting oneself.  This is another huge topic.  I’ll share a guilty secret with you.  I feel a little uncomfortable with all the recent publicity over winning STEM woman of the year.  Yet at the same time, I know how important it is to be visible, and what an accolade my winning is for the IPO as well as for me.  Why is this?  Is it because women (and other minorities) are conditioned to be humble? Does society tell us we should behave this way? Does society dislike confident women

I recognise that my specific circumstances are quite unusual, but these themes are very common. What can we do about this?  We’re back to challenging stereotypes. On a personal level, I’m a huge fan of constantly, gently, nudging myself to do something outside of my comfort zone.  I’ve been doing this consciously since I was about 23, at a geology conference and completely unable to speak to the people that I really needed to for my research, because I was just too shy.  You only grow when you’re outside of your comfort zone.  And then it becomes comfortable! 

My challenges to you, dear reader, in reward for reading all of my profile are thus:  

  • Challenge gender stereotyping and bias, including in your own thinking – it’s so ingrained in us all.
  • Be an ally to children and young people – change the societal message that STEM is only for boys.
  • Nudge yourself out of your comfort zone.  You’ll be astonished at what you can achieve.