Celebrating Women in STEM – Rebecca Simmons
Over the last few weeks, we have been showcasing Riverlane’s female scientists and engineers. This week, we feature Chief Operating Officer and all-round superwoman, Dr Rebecca Simmons. Bek discusses her observations on class and gender in science, and why the markers of success in science need to change in order to help achieve a more level playing field.
Hi Bek! Tell me more about your role at Riverlane
In my job I try to create a happy and healthy working environment for everyone at Riverlane. That’s the main reason I get up and go to work every day. Alongside that I also make the company an efficient and effective place to work, ensuring every system and process I set up is scalable for when we get bigger. So, that’s kind of the operational, HR aspect of my job, but I also have a large strategic role alongside Leonie and Steve, thinking about the ultimate direction of the company and what we do, and then facilitating making that happen.
Does having a background in science help you do your job now?
Yes, 110% percent. I’ve spent my whole life either being a scientist or managing teams of scientists, so I have a deep understanding of the ways in which they work, and don’t work, and the culture that’s important to them. Scientists work super intensively, and you have to give them as much freedom as possible. So, trying to help them to deliver and at the same time supporting them to do their best is something I feel very comfortable with.
You are (rightly!) proud of your working-class background. How do you feel this has affected you in your life and career, in both positive and perhaps negative ways?
I have an incredibly strong work ethic, which I definitely learned from my parents. I also think that it has given me the ability to speak to anybody from any background and encourage them to open up and engage. Throughout my life, it’s been clear to me that individuals from less privileged backgrounds often don’t have as much confidence and social agency as others, particularly in the workplace, and I recognise that and think it’s important to encourage everybody to contribute.
On the other hand, it held me back when I was younger. I had a bit of a chip on my shoulder about it, you know thinking you’re not as good as someone else or you didn’t go to a certain school, but as my confidence has grown, I can acknowledge that I am successful on my own terms and I’ve moved on from this unhelpful way of thinking.
What sparked your initial interest in science and how did your career lead you to your current job?
I loved both numbers and words at school, so it was quite a difficult decision to choose between the humanities and sciences. I eventually chose Human Sciences at Oxford, an almost halfway house, where you study both biological and social sciences.
The point at which I focussed down on a specific discipline – epidemiology – is much clearer in my mind. As part of my undergraduate degree I spent a summer working on a Native American reservation in Wisconsin, USA, and learned about the devastation that diabetes wreaks upon these communities. The epidemic has both social and biological elements and I came back to the UK with a clear goal to train as an epidemiologist, with the ultimate motivation to improve human health.
You may then ask how I have ended up working in a quantum computing company? It’s a pretty long way away from epidemiology! I spent 10 years at the MRC Epidemiology Unit in Cambridge and during that time, I developed a talent for motivating and leading teams. I then took increasingly senior management roles in research organisations and completed an MBA to further develop my leadership skills. Fast forward a few years and I landed on my feet at Riverlane. I get to work in a cutting-edge scientific field, with a team of hugely clever, kind people, and I can use my experience to help organise and grow the company. I love it!
I hope my story shows that a scientific career is not a linear pathway and that it can accommodate changing aspirations and motivations throughout a lifetime.
How do you feel about the gender imbalance in science?
I feel frustrated and think it’s simply a huge waste of talent that there are not more women in science, particularly the physical sciences that Riverlane focusses on – maths, physics, and engineering. The disparity has been noticeable throughout my career. Not just the gender imbalance in certain disciplines but also the insidious structural and cultural characteristics that make it difficult for women to shine.
It’s something we’re really interested in tackling at Riverlane. We’ve already seen evidence of a gender imbalance. Very few women apply for our roles and less than 10% of all our internship applications were from women. Part of the reason for this series is to highlight the amazing female talent that we have at the company. Including the fact that we have two women on the senior leadership team! We hope this will encourage women to consider applying to Riverlane – we have a supportive and welcoming culture whatever your background.
What do think could be done to encourage more women to enter and stay in science?
I would say three things. One is the childcare/ family situation, and that needs full scale socio-economic and cultural change in the UK to enable equity between men and women.
The second thing is having more role models, more visible women in science, I think we are getting there on that front, but more could be done. And thirdly, I think the way you reward people in science needs changing. We are judged on the number and quality of scientific papers we publish and the amount of grant money that we’ve won – not the less visible work – how many PhD students you have got through their viva, or the committees you sit on, or the teaching that you do – all things of equal merit and that women, on average, tend to do more of than men.
What do you consider to be your proudest achievement so far?
Supporting my friends and members of my family through mental health problems, and always being there for them is my biggest achievement. I’m concerned with the day-to-day quality of people’s lives and this feeds into my values and way of working at Riverlane. I want to encourage an open dialogue about mental health in our company. Having people from different backgrounds, with different life experiences, is very important. It makes us better and we are constantly trying to broaden and nurture diversity within the team.
Inspired to join our team? Keep an eye on our vacancies for upcoming opportunities