As part of International Women’s Month, we’re speaking to our colleagues in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM). Women accounted for 24% of the STEM workforce in 2019. This is only expected to rise to 29% by 2030.
To celebrate International Women’s Month and promote gender equality in the fields, we’re highlighting colleagues who are “breaking the bias” and bringing innovation into their subjects.
About Pippa Palmer
Pippa is a Research Strategist in LSBU School of the Built Environment and freelance consultant. Alongside her Research Strategist role, Pippa also helps to organise LSBU's Emergency Climate Series events, drawing on her specialisms of systems change and root cause analysis.
As a Research Strategist Pippa’s core focus is now Climate Emergency and systems change for delivery of Net Zero in the Built Environment - clean energy, energy access, energy market transitions.
She is also the creator of Ghosts and Gaps - a research and insight audit which interrogates service user beliefs / behaviours along with gap analysis / organisational processes, to re-design customer journeys to reduce frictions and drive changes in behaviour, engagement or compliance.
About Women in the Construction Industry
In the UK, out of the 2.3 million people employed in the construction industry, only 296,000 are women. In 2015, 27% of women stated that they had been actively discouraged from pursuing a career within construction and property.
Diversity is important in any workplace. A range of backgrounds, skills and opinions can lead to creative problem solving, better ideas, and different strategies to manage projects; all of which will be increasingly important as we work to collectively tackle and mitigate climate change.
Read on to get to know Pippa’s role at SBI, her journey and experience as a woman in STEM, and her life outside of universi
Hello, please tell us about yourself?
I’m Pippa Palmer. I’m a Research Strategist at LSBU in School of Built Environment & Architecture. My main research focus is the systems changes needed for the UK to meet our ambitious net zero targets, particularly the need to retrofit millions of homes and move away from mains gas. I also curate LSBU’s Climate Emergency Series, bringing the built environment sector together to discuss the big systems change issues around heat, retrofit, and policy, and the multitude of skills we’ll need to make the net zero transition.
Outside of work, I’m a community co-ordinator in Brixton where I live with my trusty old dog, Jarvis Cocker, and my tabby cat, Jasmine, and create collage and draw in my garden studio. I also belong to a writing group and am halfway through writing a novel set on the cusp of WW2.
How long have you been working at SBI/LSBU?
The School of Built Environment & Architecture offered me the part time role of Curator of the LSBU Climate Emergency Series in late 2019, which fitted well as I was in recovery from a long illness and still needing lots of rehab. By January 2021, I was in remission and able to take on a full-time role as Research Strategist. Since then, I’ve had the pleasure of working with SBI, BEA and on some cross-disciplinary projects with LSS. Not coming from an academic background, I was surprised to publish my first academic paper, aged 58, in Summer 2021.
Please describe to us what your day-to-day life looks at your job?
My working day starts with a sift through my ‘to do’ list to decide the day’s priorities. I mainly work with academics and our research partners, such as local authorities, and businesses. I also network with sector influencers, promoting LSBU and following market and policy developments.
The stage of the research dictates my day’s focus. Bidding stage calls for a theory of change and programme design. Those insights into the socioeconomic and political context are invaluable.
Conducting the research means liaising with research subjects, conducting field work and facilitating workshops. The analysis phase tends to be more insular, sorting the data and waiting for that elusive ‘eureka’ moment.
Next, there’s the writing up which can be laborious and requires a steely focus – difficult when people want your attention while you want to disappear into a manuscript. But its satisfying when its ready to publish. Then it’s back to being socialable - disseminating the findings and ensuring the right people hear about it.
In between there’s a fair bit of admin, endless reading, and contributing to steering groups and committees. Collaboration is key to driving the net zero agenda. LSBU are brilliant, but we can’t change it all on our own.
Why do you believe celebrating International Women's Day/Month is important?
Having ridden the tail end of second wave feminism, I’ll be waving the flag for women’s rights until I draw my last breath. As a disabled woman, I’ve given talks about the intersectionality of disability and gender, particularly gender bias in medicine where women routinely get less pain relief, less compassion, and are routinely dismissed as hysterics and disbelieved. Women and girls already experience disproportionate gender-based violence but those with disabilities are three times more likely to face violence, sexual abuse neglect and exploitation. Breaking the gender bias embedded throughout our social, economic and medical systems is critical for equality.
Have you had any challenges in your education or career because of your gender? How did you overcome them?
I had a convent education which taught us to be compliant wives. University wasn’t an option, but we could iron shirts. I’ve had to work hard to counter that. As a junior account handler in 1988, I was grilled by four men in a job interview about my contraceptive arrangements. I said my husband was on the waiting list for a vasectomy to shut them up. Unthinkable now. But even as late as 2016, at director level I experienced gender-related pushback. I’d led the pitch for a prestigious global award for the charity I was heading. It was a major win. But I was pushed aside and the male Chairman and CEO (neither of whom had been involved) collected the prize and basked in the adulation. The awarding committee was speechless. With hindsight I should have challenged them. But I hate conflict and prefer to quietly chip away at the day-to-day stuff – pushing for gender equality on boards, tackling bias in HR, men talking over women in meetings, or ignoring their contribution then recycling their ideas as their own. I jump straight onto that. But equally I will not tolerate sexist tropes about men. Gender equality commands respect both ways.
What is the most valuable piece of advice you've ever received?
A former colleague opened my eyes to a stunning concept: we humans have a complicated relationship with our own perceptions. We rarely understand why we think, feel or behave like we do, but we’re masters at conjuring up a convincing narrative to justify it. Even our memories are malleable, which makes us unreliable witnesses. Worse, we’re shockingly unaware of all this. But we’re not bad or mad. We need confabulation and ignorance to stay sane. It’s important advice because it affords one compassion towards human frailties. We’re wired for survival in a complex world. We’re all just doing our best.
What can we do to encourage more women to enter STEM?
I think there’s a massive opportunity for the next generation to embrace STEM subjects in the context of climate careers, to become the innovators and drivers of change as we gear up for a massive energy transition, rethink human habitation, and challenge the way we use the planet’s resources. The STEM subjects are at the heart of climate mitigation and drive the systemic changes the world needs to prioritise. Many women would welcome the chance embrace positive careers that not just allow them to earn a good living, but are behind the drive to save our planet.
Unfortunately, there aren’t a lot of women working in my particular department, it’s very male dominated and engineering focused. But we’re working on it!
What is the most crucial message you would like to express to young women considering careers in STEM?
So many STEM careers have a scope to be a refocused as climate careers. As an individual, you can make such a difference to the outcomes for the world, and there is a tremendous choice of roles across many different disciplines. Skills such as negotiation and collaboration, where women are often naturally comfortable, are going to be invaluable in the climate agenda. Communication is also going to be critical. Anyone with the ability to bring fresh eyes to old problems will forge ahead. Seize the moment. Your planet needs you!
Is there somebody in your professional life who inspires you?
My old friend and colleague Clare Wildfire, who coincidentally introduced me to the built environment sector, and is now Global Practice Lead for Cities at Mott MacDonald. Clare succeeds in delivering in challenging high-powered roles, often whilst being the only woman at the table and a decade younger than her peers. She has a remarkable ability to retain her inner zen - a ninja time manager, wonderfully clear-headed and can hold a room without ever being performative. Getting that balance right, being unashamedly feminine whilst operating with solid professionalism and confidence in your personal power – that’s inspiring!
Which inspirational women, living or dead, would you invite to dinner and why?
Former Scotland Yard Behavioural Analyst, Laura Richards. Her victim-centred work on femicide, violence, domestic abuse, stalking and coercive control has changed our understanding of crimes against women. Not just the perpetrators. Those investigating need a shake-up. Her podcast about the police mishandling of the Peter Sutcliffe investigation showed systemic inequality and misogyny it was breath-taking. I hope Laura wouldn’t mind it being a working dinner, because I’d want to ask her about her work on coercive control, misconceptions about deserving and undeserving victims and what we can do to stem the progression from coercive control to violence to eventual murder.
If, like Pippa Palmer, you want to enter the STEM workforce and put your skills and ideas to good use, you could access fully-funded Construction, Sustainability and Engineering units from our new ASPIRE London programme. Find out more at aspire-london.com