Women in research: Sarah Spurgeon
April 25, 2022 | 6 min read
By Sarah Spurgeon , OBE, FREng, FIEEE, FIET, Christopher Tancock
"At all career stages, the availability of role models is in my view very important in encouraging others..."
In this miniseries, we take a look at the issues experienced by women in research and will try to unpack some of the problems they may face in accepting and discharging editorial roles. We hope to highlight these issues, explore solutions and continue the conversation about how we can best enable gender balance in editorial teams without overloading any of the participants. We welcome all constructive comments and suggestions.
Sarah Spurgeon was interviewed by Christopher Tancock.
Tell us a little bit about your background and current role…
I originally studied mathematics, having studied both maths and physics at school and finding physics practical classes quite challenging as the only female in the class. I always had a great passion for solving real world problems however and quickly specialised in applied maths. The supervisor of my undergraduate project became aware of an opportunity to work on a sponsored industrial project with the then British Aerospace in the area of flight control systems and, following my graduation, encouraged me to join. From this involvement and with no initial knowledge or training in control or aerodynamics, I became a control engineer. I am now Professor of Control Engineering and Head of the Department of Electronic and Electrical Engineering at UCL.
What does a “normal” day look like for you?
There is no "normal" day! I am involved in diverse activities as a researcher, an educator, a leader of a department as well as through involvement with various professional bodies and advisory activities both nationally and internationally. I am also a wife and mother. I embrace the rich and varied landscape in which I have the privilege to work and particularly welcome the diversity of people I have the opportunity to interact with.
How did you come to be involved with the IFAC (International Federation of Automatic Control(opens in new tab/window)) society and its journals?
I became involved as an early career researcher when I presented my first paper at an IFAC Symposium in 1991 and attended my first IFAC World Congress in 1993. I really liked the sense of community within IFAC and quickly felt at home. I became involved with wider activities by initially being involved with UKACC (UK Automatic Control Council), the UK National Member Organisation of IFAC, initially as an elected Group Representative. In 2008 I was elected Chair of UKACC and in the same year was appointed to what was my first IFAC role, as a member of the then Publications Committee. In 2021, I was elected Vice President Publications.
What would you say is your greatest professional accomplishment?
I was incredibly proud to be made an Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (OBE) for services to engineering in the New Year’s Honours list in 2015. The ceremony at Buckingham Palace was a very special occasion and I was very honoured to represent engineering amidst the splendid array of other contributions to public good that were being celebrated.
In your opinion what is/are the 1-3 biggest obstacles facing women who want to participate more in academia?
The sometimes seemingly unbounded nature of the role which can seem at odds with family life and/or geographical constraints. Early career academics have to be excellent researchers who publish and obtain research grants as well as demonstrating the impact of their work. They also need to educate the next generation. The individual is at the centre of any academic role, and this can be at odds with periods of maternity, parental or carer’s leave. A great deal of support is in place in academia and there is clear understanding of the problem, but I still believe for the individual academic concerned, it is a challenging career path for women. I had three periods of maternity leave and as an engineer working in a domain where the pace of technological change is relatively rapid certainly felt pressures. My concerns about being able to maintain research output were entirely of my own making but the fact that it may be hard to stop and then restart a research career is an issue which can be an obstacle for women.
How does your society (IFAC) view the issue of gender and diversity in its journals and other operations?
IFAC is committed to the highest principles of equality, diversity and inclusion without boundaries, and I am proud that IFAC has adopted a code of conduct with diversity and inclusivity as core values. One of its five executive committees is the Diversity and Inclusion Committee which raises awareness of diversity, monitors different aspects of diversity within IFAC and consults the Executive Officers and Council on all matters related to diversity and inclusion. In terms of publications, we are pleased to work with Elsevier and are setting appropriate equality and diversity goals for our journals.
Do you think that the pandemic has helped or hindered the cause of gender equality in editorial teams?
The pandemic has had several phases which appear to have impacted differently on individuals at different career stages; for many individuals, the pandemic period has been a difficult one. The needs for home schooling as well as the need to support older adults whilst simultaneously working from home in challenging times has certainly impacted colleagues. For those involved in experimental research, the period has been particularly challenging. I am sure robust data analysis will in time show these impacts more explicitly, but it is my belief that the cause of gender equality has not been helped by pandemic working conditions.
Do you think it is easier now for women to undertake editorial roles?
It is helpful that there is more focus on equality and diversity. That data is monitored and discussed ensures Editorial Boards and professional organisations consider more carefully the balance of role holders. This ensures women more readily receive invitations to serve. Similarly for women considering editorial roles it is helpful that there are more women visible in such roles. At all career stages, the availability of role models is in my view very important in encouraging others to take on roles.
If you could give one piece of advice to your younger self – or other women who might be in a similar situation – what would that be?
Be more confident from the outset. I believe imposter syndrome can be a great problem for minority groups and can be confidence sapping(opens in new tab/window). I very much regret the time I spent worrying about if I was good enough to be an academic and an engineer.
If you could do one thing to advance the cause of greater participation of women in editorial work, what would that be?
I would remove quotas, for example whereby a certain percentage of reviews are expected to be performed by women or where a given percentage of an Editorial Board should be female, where the percentage of women in the field is less than the quota. Such quotas, in my view, do not help the progression of women but can create unequal career pathways. I would instead focus on supporting women to take an appropriate proportion of the opportunities available while carefully monitoring progression to higher, more visible editorial positions.