Female quartet engineer big success at Edinburgh

July 27, 2007

Four women have made history at Edinburgh University through their appointment as professors in the School of Engineering and Electronics.

Rebecca Barthelmie, Rebecca Cheung, Andrea Schaefer and Roya Sheikholeslami make up 23 per cent of the school's 18-member professoriate, compared with a national figure of about 1 per cent. In total, ten of the 85-member school are women.

The school's head, Peter Grant, stressed that the new chairs had not been appointed because of their gender.

"Everyone is appointed on merit. It's an open process, and we pick the person who has the best capabilities and future prospects. I think we just haven't had the applications until recently - women are now rising to higher positions in industry and getting more senior academic positions, so there's more of a recruitment pool."

Professor Grant said some 20 per cent of Edinburgh's engineering undergraduates were female, and seeing more women in senior posts should encourage them to consider an academic career.

The appointments have been praised by Athena, an initiative to encourage women into science. Athena statistics show that while women make up 51 per cent of the population, 37 per cent of A-level maths students and 23 per cent of A'level physics students, they make up only 8 per cent of lecturers in the fields, and just 1.3 per cent of fellows of the Royal Academy of Engineering.

Caroline Fox, Athena programme manager, said: "Edinburgh has worked extremely hard on getting things right for women in science for a long time. They have a track record that goes back into the mid-1990s, including an all-women mentoring scheme."

Edinburgh was now being seen as the "employer of choice" when women were applying, she said.

Athena is analysing unpublished data that suggests that role models are more significant for women than for men in the sciences. Ms Fox said support and encouragement were important for career progress.



Andrea Schaefer turned up for interview at Edinburgh with a four-month-old baby. But she found the chair of the interview panel, Edinburgh's principal Tim O'Shea, not only unfazed but utterly supportive. "What's really, really important is the forward thinking of the university," she said.

But this overt display of motherhood was a new departure for her. When she had her first child, now aged seven, she would continue her research into the night.

"I was pressuring myself to work even harder, to show that I could still do the job although I'm a mother."


Rebecca Barthelmie was the first in her family to go to university, graduating in environmental chemistry at the University of East Anglia before taking a PhD in wind-energy applications.

"I was lucky in having a female supervisor, and that persuaded me of the benefit of role models."

Now a role model herself, she said: "I think we all have a duty to do the best research we can, and that is as good a role model as we can ever be."

She is not in favour of positive discrimination, but believes there could be more outreach to young women and to potential students from non-traditional backgrounds.


Rebecca Cheung's father, an engineer himself, advised her to study engineering. But once she was on the civil engineering degree at Glasgow University she decided she didn't want to work in the macho environment of construction sites, so she transferred to electronics and electrical engineering.

She graduated with a first-class degree, aged 20, and stayed on for a PhD, with a scholarship.

After postdoc work abroad she became a lecturer at Edinburgh's Scottish Microelectronics Centre in 2000. She now has a personal chair and is head of the graduate school, inspiring the next generation.


Roya Sheikholeslami was not brought up to consider limitations: her widowed mother always told her: "You are just as good as a man."

And Edinburgh's new professor of chemical process engineering believes that what is needed to raise the number of women in engineering is not positive discrimination, but a change of attitudes.

"My very best students have been female, and I think specific scholarships negate that because they portray them as just getting scholarships because they are female. You have to change the attitudes of the fathers and mothers so that they don't tell their kids it's a man's field," she said.

Professor Sheikholeslami's inspiration was her school chemistry teacher in Tehran. She went on to study chemical engineering science at the University of Kansas, followed by postgraduate study at the University of British Columbia (UBC).

She left higher education in 2004 to set up her own company, but retained a joint professorship at UBC and RMIT University in Australia. She says that she is delighted to have been headhunted to Europe, where she can pursue her research interests.

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