“Maybe I was lucky with the timing, or had a bit of a trailblazer in me, but the environment was changing”

Hayley, a woman in her twenties, sits on a window ledge in the Union Dining room, a wood-pannelled room.

Carolyn Hansson (Metallurgy 1962, DIC 1965) has had a remarkable career in engineering. And it all began at the Royal College of Mines, where she was one of the first female students. And the first six months, she says, were hell.

“I didn’t know I was going to be the only woman there,” says Hansson. “People were pointing and saying: ‘That’s the Mines woman!’ I was a museum piece, and I think maybe people thought I was just there to get a husband. Nobody wanted to be my lab partner or anything like that.”

Eventually, she and two male colleagues formed a research group, and her fellows eased around her – “They understood that I wouldn’t date them, let alone marry them.” By her third year, Hansson had settled in, forming a strong network of friends among the cricket team, for whom she acted as team scorer. Not that it was all plain sailing. “The head of the department called me into his office one day and said: ‘If you fail, there isn’t going to be another woman admitted to a metallurgy department for many years.’” No pressure, then.

Carolyn, a woman with blue eyes and short wavy hair, wears a blue blazer and looks to the camera

Carolyn Hansson (Metallurgy 1962, DIC 1965)

Carolyn Hansson (Metallurgy 1962, DIC 1965)

Now Professor Emerita at Canada’s University of Waterloo, this has been the story of her life, she says, including her transatlantic move to America shortly after her PhD. “When I got the job at Martin Marietta [now part of Lockheed Martin], they said to me: ‘Well, if you work out, maybe we’ll consider hiring other women,’” she remembers. “My attitude has always been: I’d better not screw up. Because if I screw up, it’s going to affect so many other people.”

Since those early days, Imperial has come a long way, but the perfection trap is one that can still affect minority groups. It’s why Dr Jess Wade (MSci Physics 2012, PhD 2016), Research Fellow in the Department of Materials, makes such a big effort in outreach activities. “Instead of platitudes or awareness campaigns, we really need to focus on some actions that make a difference.” Among numerous other awards, she was presented with the British Empire Medal in 2019 for her service to gender diversity in science.

Wade says that the institutionalised mindsets of the past can be difficult to change – in men and women – and she has experienced “the ladder being drawn up” by female mentors. But she says this has just made her more determined than ever not to be that kind of person, and that there are plenty of positives out there.

“I love teaching, and Imperial is a wonderful place to work because the students are absolutely incredible,” she says. “They want a more diverse culture than ever before, so inclusivity is both a student and a moral thing. I find it really unfair to think that you could be a teenage girl and never know about subjects like material science or physics because society gender-stereotypes you out of them.”

Jess, a woman with dark hair and glasses, sits on the steps inside the Royal School of Mines.

Dr Jess Wade seated in the stairwell of the Royal School of Mines.

Dr Jess Wade seated in the stairwell of the Royal School of Mines.

Such stereotypes were the key reason for Imperial Union’s first female Student Union President, Judith Walker (Electrical Engineering 1971), to choose to study science. “I always felt it was my duty as a woman,” she says. “People at school always said that ‘girls didn’t do science’ – imagine being told that as a teenager!”

Walker came to Imperial for a one-year Master’s. “The first thing I did was join the Socialist Society,” she remembers. “They thought it might be in line with the disruptive intentions they had for society to put forward a woman for the Presidency – that, along with the fact that there were not many people or willing volunteers. I was very much a continuity candidate; some of the same themes carried on because of the wider politics of the Sixties.” Walker’s presidency was a last hurrah for the Socialist Society’s political run, which died down after she left.

Walker is very much still in touch with her Imperial ‘gang’. “It was through the societies and the Union where I came across other women. There just weren’t many of us.” And her experience helped broaden her circle of alumni after graduating. “I was much involved with the British Society for Social Responsibility and Science, which is a dreadful name, but was a radical science movement with many people from Imperial.”

Judith, a woman with white hair, stands in the stairwell of the Electrical and Electronic Engineering Building.

Judith Walker in the stairwell of the Electrical and Electronic Engineering Building.

Judith Walker in the stairwell of the Electrical and Electronic Engineering Building.

Hayley, a woman in her twenties, sits on a stack of chairs in the Union Dining room, a wood-pannelled room with the names of previous Union presidents inscribed on plaques.

Hayley Wong in the Student Union Dining Hall.

Hayley Wong in the Student Union Dining Hall.

As more and more women follow in these pioneering footsteps, so the number of female role models continues to increase. And that’s crucial, says Hayley Wong (Aeronautics with Spacecraft Engineering, 2022), current Union President. “In the Department of Aeronautics, Professor Zahra Sharif Khodaei acted as the Tutor for Women,” says Wong. “It was great because I knew there was someone in the Department that I could go to that would have an understanding of the issues I face as a woman in a male-dominated environment. My personal tutor, Dr Thulasi Mylvaganam (MEng Electrical and Electronic Engineering 2010, PhD 2014), was another great female role model for me and supported me through my degree. The Department also ran town halls for women, providing a safe space for us to share and discuss any issues we may be facing.”

Wong was a member of two of the societies focused on those who identified as women – Women in SET (Science, Engineering and Technology) and Women in Business. “As student-led societies, they ran regular social and professional events and provided us with a platform to network with inspiring women across industry. It’s amazing to be part of a community with so many people from so many different backgrounds.”

Dominique, a woman with light blonde hair, stands on the top floor of the Sir Alexander Fleming Building.

Dominique Kleyn standing on the top floor of the Sir Alexander Fleming Building.

Dominique Kleyn standing on the top floor of the Sir Alexander Fleming Building.

Dominique Kleyn (Microbiology 1983, MBA 2005) agrees, saying her time at Imperial has given her friendship groups around the world. “What’s really wonderful is being connected by not just the same interests, but also a shared desire to move those interests on with new developments,” she says. Those connections have also led to career moves, including her current role as co-founder and CEO of Orthonika, which develops orthopaedic implants using novel textile technology. “Imperial connections have given me the opportunity to start my own business – that’s a real privilege.”

Kleyn had returned to Imperial for an MBA nine years after graduating, using her industry experience for new venture support as part of Imperial Innovations. “I did look at other universities, but technology entrepreneurship is a niche that Imperial does really well and the others don’t seem to have quite the same focus on that side,” she says.

"Imperial does empower you: it’s an empowering place."
Dominique Kleyn (Microbiology 1983, MBA 2005)

Kleyn continues to work with new ventures through the Imperial Venture Mentoring Service, in which prestigious business leaders help companies started by students and staff. She has built that entrepreneurial side since graduation when she went straight into the milk round.

“That was a fabulous time really,” she says. “It was part of Unilever’s corporate venture to commercialise research that had come out of its labs in Coworth. They had developed some monoclonal antibody production technology, and we were looking at how you could use those monoclonal antibodies in diagnostic tests.” The result was the Clearblue pregnancy testing kit.

“Maybe I was just lucky with the timing,” she says. “Or maybe there was a bit of a trailblazer in me, but the environment was changing. I could work with people who could enable me to achieve my potential. Imperial does empower you: it’s an empowering place.”

Imperial is the magazine for the Imperial community. It delivers expert comment, insight and context from – and on – the College’s engineers, mathematicians, scientists, medics, coders and leaders, as well as stories about student life and alumni experiences.

This story was published originally in Imperial 54/Summer 2023.