Pamela Fennell – Reflections – Women in LoLo

Pamela Fennell – Reflections – Women in LoLo
6th March 2018 Mae Oroszlany


Alumna – University College London

My dad is a civil engineer and when I was a child, he worked on a hydroelectric power projects in Norway and Sri Lanka. I spent most of my childhood abroad and as a result grew up under the impression that engineering was pretty much the most glamourous and desirable of all possible careers. Apart from a brief dalliance with the idea of a career in banking (in Sri Lanka, the expat bankers lived in houses with swimming pools, the engineers, sadly, did not), I never considered any other career option.

Fortunately, having decided on a career as an engineer long before I left primary school, it turned out that I enjoyed physics and so I moved happily from school to an engineering degree. Although I had noticed that, being female, I was in a minority, it wasn’t until my first summer working on a construction site during the university holidays that I realised that might make a difference to how I was treated. That summer was comical, rumours abounded on site that I was related to the chief executive and principally there to report back on performance – what other reason could there be for a 19 year-old woman to be working on a building site?

In the years after that, being the odd one out was the norm and in any new interaction I had first to prove my competence before I would be taken seriously. Although having to prove myself with every new colleague was frustrating, the result was positive and I was generally pretty happy with the rate at which my career progressed.

Fast-forward (quite) a few years and youth was not the issue anymore but something much more significant – kids. In the construction industry, long working hours are the norm, pre-kids I typically left home at 6.30am and got back at 7.30pm, roughly the same times that my daughter woke up and went to bed. Choosing to work fewer hours so I didn’t just see my daughter at the weekends meant feeling that I wasn’t really pulling my weight. Working part-time made a tangible difference to my career too. I was working 4 days a week, which objectively, is not hugely different to full-time hours but in an industry where full-time is overwhelming the standard work pattern, it made a big difference.

Pursuing a PhD through the LoLo CDT has been an amazing opportunity. Importantly, the MRes year gave me a chance to explore various fields before deciding where I wanted to focus. Staff were particularly supportive, condensing the face to face hours for the MRes year into a smaller number of days made a huge difference to my childcare costs.

As a PhD student, you are responsible for your research, what matters are the outputs, not the hours, which is a world of difference from the face-time culture I had been used to. That is not to say it has always been easy. Though having the freedom to choose to work in the early hours before my family got up and late at night after they were in bed meant I could be home in time to do the school run most days, allowing a much better balance between family and work commitments than I had ever managed before. I am at the end of my PhD journey now and as I think about options for the next adventure, I cannot help wishing the PhD years could have lasted a bit longer…