Mom of the Month: September 2019

September is Heritage month here in South Africa. It’s the time of year when we reflect on our history as well as the beautiful array of cultures and languages present in our remarkable South African nation. So with this in mind, it may seem a tad strange for me to be featuring a mom who is not a locally-grown talent. But I’ll say this, the Duchess of Sussex is currently visiting SA; so it seems we’re all embracing the idea of British nationals during September already 😎

This month’s Mom connected with me via LinkedIn. Having followed a similar journey and also being an advocate for better diversity and inclusion in STEM; she brings in a very real perspective from her own experiences in the UK. I felt that this was a vital story to share, mainly because as a developing nation we often feel that our problems are simply our own. Yet when we start connecting and really talking about the practicalities of our working envirnoments; we realise that topics of diversity and inclusion, flexible work hours and a general unsupportive culture within the STEM environment are very real, global challenges. But above all, I love Kate’s advice to STEM sure to read all the way’s a goodie 🙂


Name: Kate Banks

Age: 40

Location: Kent, UK

Job title: STEM Leader

Company: STEM Space (@CreateSTEMSpace)

Meet Kate - Astrophycist, engineer, Mom & STEM ambassador :)

Learning STEM concepts with only spaghetti and marshmallows!

Interview with a fellow STEM Mom

1. What does your everyday work entail?

Currently I’m in the early stages of setting up a new company, STEM Space. My first project within STEM Space is running STEM clubs for ages 5-9. My youngest is in pre-school part-time so this is when I get the bulk of my work done. On these days I am usually running STEM clubs, preparing material for the clubs, working on my new website and planning for the future phases of STEM Space.

2. What career path led you to your current work?

I graduated with an MPhys Physics with Astrophysics. Between my 3rd and 4th year, I completed a summer placement at a company who designed and manufactured telecommunications satellites and this inspired me to pursue a career in Engineering. I was able to secure my graduate position as a Systems Engineer at this company.

After completing my graduate placement, I moved into the Defense sector where I worked across many different projects as a Systems Engineer. Over the years I took on more responsibility on the projects and was promoted through the engineering scale to Principal Systems Engineer. I later took on leadership roles in Engineering Operations and Project Management.

My eldest son started school last September, and at this point it became really difficult to balance the expectations at work with the demands of school hours and holidays. After trying to juggle it all for a number of months, I decided to take some time off and see if I could find a more flexible working arrangement.

3. How did you decide to move into this career path?-was it a certain person or moment which initiated it all?

Initially when I left work I didn’t know what I would do next! I was keen to give something back to the Engineering community so I signed up as a STEM ambassador and volunteered at a couple of school events. One of the activities was giving a talk on electricity at my son’s school. When I arrived, the school had a power cut which made the talk and demonstration even more fun! They asked me if I would come back and run some STEM clubs in the new term - so that’s where it all began! 🙂

4. Was there ever a time that you recall wanting to change paths & what convinced you to continue on your chosen path?

I really enjoyed working on Engineering projects; the variety in technology, working with different customers and the learning opportunities all kept me progressing within my field. The truth is this: If I hadn’t had children; I probably would have continued.

Around the time of quitting my job I had enrolled in Tara Mohr’s Playing Big course. The course was truly transformational and it really helped me take an honest look at where I was getting value out of my work. I realized that although I was happy in Engineering, I did lack a sense of purpose that goes alongside a truly fulfilling career. I’d definitely recommend her book or course for anyone wanting to play big in their work or life; it was a real eye opener. I now had the courage to make the leap into a new area of work whilst having the flexibility I needed to be a mom as well.

5. Give us a brief description of a normal/extraordinary 24hours in your life. (You can choose one 😋)

An extraordinary day would be my first volunteer activity as a STEM Ambassador, as a judge at the Big Bang Fair South East. I had the privilege of judging the junior engineering projects and was blown away by the talent and enthusiasm demonstrated by our future engineers and scientists. There were so many females winning prizes too, which was fantastic to see!

By talking to the teams who were competing for the prizes, it was clear to see which children had been supported by dedicated STEM clubs, teachers or ambassadors. It made me realize the massive impact we can have on the future generation of innovators if we can encourage and nurture their enthusiasm and curiosity during their school years.

6. Name the one thing which excites you about your field of work.

The most exciting things about running the STEM clubs has been seeing the curiosity in the children when I explain a new concept, and how excited they are to ask questions and try out the activities. Curiosity is such a vital part of STEM, and it leads them to be so creative without the constraints we tend to have as adults working in STEM. Their ideas are amazing and our world will be a better place in the future if we can encourage some of them into STEM careers.

7. What has your experience been like being a women in STEM?

Challenging!! In the United Kingdom, women make up around 21% of the STEM workforce, and in Engineering this drops to around 12%. In the companies I’ve worked for it was around 9%. It is hard to work as a minority in a very male dominated environment. I found there was a lot of prejudice and assumptions of what women ‘should’ be doing, and this got considerably worse when people found out I was pregnant with my eldest son. At the time one of my directors told me that I’d ruined my chances of promotion and I no longer had a career ahead of me.

After having my children I worked reduced hours to accommodate nursery hours. Although the company supported flexible working options for everyone; at the working level there was still a lot of prejudice. Some managers refused to hire people who weren’t able to work full time, or to have reduced-hour-workers on their teams. Although I made a point of being a voice to support flexible working; ultimately I was still being told that my future roles were severely limited unless I could commit to full time hours. I can see why there is such a poor retention for STEM women in their mid-career stage.

8. Do you find that there are still barriers within the STEM field?

Definitely in Defense engineering you can tell there are still barriers by considering the jobs advertised in the sector - many are full time and on-site working only. Even with security constraints, there are easily available software and hardware packages to allow employees to work remotely. This would benefit anyone who has a reason to require a more flexible working arrangement, as currently there is a large sector of the working population who are excluded. Increasing the options for flexible working would result in a more diverse workforce which can only be a positive thing when you are working in the design space.

9. Did becoming a mom change how you experienced your field of work?

Definitely. I was no longer able to work long hours at my desk and there were opportunities which were no longer available to me unless I was there for extended hours.

10. How do you think organisational spaces could be improved upon in order to better support women in STEM?

More diversity in leadership would help, so that employees could see representation of ‘people like me’. A change in culture to promote the benefits of a more inclusive and diverse workforce would improve organizations, as would investment in the technology to enable people to work where and how they are best able to.

I’ve seen a massive benefit from creating networks for underrepresented groups, so enabling the creation of these would help to provide women with support, coaching and mentoring as needed.

11. What do you hope to achieve within your career, whether in the short/long term?

I want to provide STEM clubs that inspire the children who attend, to be curious and ignite a love of learning. Their world of work will be so different to ours; it is estimated that 85% of the jobs that will exist in 2030 have not even been invented yet. We need to teach them the process of how to gain new knowledge rather than the knowledge itself.

During the Playing Big course (mentioned earlier), I learnt some amazing tools and techniques that bring together best practice from coaching, leadership development and mindfulness. My longer term goal is to share these tools and techniques with women in STEM careers to help them lead with greater impact and accelerate their effectiveness across their organizations.

12. Would you encourage your little one(s) & other young girls to move into a career similar to your own & why?

I would encourage them to explore STEM subjects at school and then take whatever path they are called to. During the school years, STEM subjects teach much more than just STEM knowledge. They learn skills such as teamwork, communication, numeracy, problem solving, risk, reasoning, creativity and innovation, and then how to apply these to real world scenarios. These are going to be the vital skills to prepare for the future of work.

13. What's your favourite mom&kiddie activity?

Lego! It was my favourite activity as a child and thankfully my sons both love Lego too. I can’t wait to start with Lego technics and the robotics packages

14. Please could you give fellow STEM moms some advice on how to navigate the challenges within our field.

Use your energy wisely. Know what fills you with joy, and brings real value to your life. As women we tend to take on a lot of tasks out of a sense of duty. It really helps to be clear on your boundaries and focus on the areas where you want to invest your energy and time.

Thank you to Kate for sharing her story! If you enjoyed this month's feature, be sure to have a look at our earlier featured moms in the #MomoftheMonth tab.

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