2016 WiSET Award winner shares her inspiring story


Jess Spurrell, the WiSET Award 2016 winner:

When I chose to study engineering at university, I probably knew on some level that I would be in a minority as a woman so this was no shock – but what did surprise me was how unusual so many other people thought it was, people of all ages, backgrounds and genders. Working with schools through outreach and engagement work it brought home how unnatural and illogical a lot of these biases and prejudices seem to young people but also how quickly the set in and become the norm if they never get to see or experience an alternative; and therefore how important it is to increase the visibility of the amazing women of engineering throughout history – for we are not a new phenomenon!

For schools specifically I became a regular workshop host for Dragonfly Day, engineering workshops for female Year 9 pupils run by female engineering postgraduate students, organised by our incredible Outreach and Widening Participation team. I attended every meeting, conversation café and forum going on the topic of increasing our female undergraduate in-take in FEE and soon started hosting university-wide meetings, the most recent being chaired by the Dean of FEE and attended by the Vice Chair of Council with commendations from the Vice Chancellor (all outputs from these meetings can be found here). At every talk I have organised or given, including at Winchester Science Festival, Speakezee Live, Pint of Science, TEATime Lectures, Open Day Drop-in Sessions, and Cafés Scientifiques & Skeptics in the Pub around the country, I have started by introducing the my ‘STEM Heroes’, the incredible women of STEM throughout history that have been a constant source of inspiration, based on research for my blog celebrating unsung heroes of all areas. With the support of WiSET and the Talk to US! public engagement project, we have distributed almost 1,000 packs of ‘Top Female Scientists Top Trumps’ cards (developed by the University of Exeter) to people of all ages all over the city, run events for local schools and university staff & students celebrating International Women’s Day, International Women in Engineering Day, and Ada Lovelace Day and shared hundreds of postcards celebrating our ‘STEM Heroes’. Collected resources for the cards, postcards, posters and more can be found here – please share them far and wide!

Winning the WiSET Award in 2016 meant so much. All of the above happened because of the support and passion of people like all the incredible women of WiSET and because of a shared understanding that change needs to be made, for the good of all. With a task like that, you just get on with things because you know how important it is, often against time restrictions and a lack of understanding from those immediately around you. Knowing that the WiSET team, a group of senior academics who are all incredibly inspiring in their own rights, are both actively encouraging you in such endeavours and recognising the time and energy involved makes the world of difference. Thank you so much, all of you!

With the Award funding I have started a library of works by and about incredible women of all disciplines – and it is growing steadily! The works are currently in my office (32/2091) – please pop by to borrow some – and suggestions for new additions are always welcome!

My message to anyone considering working in and/or studying engineering, at any stage in their lives – and, indeed, to anyone not quite sure what they want to do next – would be this: engineering opens a lot of doors and very rarely closes any. Try things, make opportunities for yourself and talk to people – you never know where you might end up!