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Women are not ‘more comfortable in the kitchen than in a science lab’: How Dr Radha Modgil, medical doctor and BBC Broadcaster overcame barriers as a woman in STEM  

Dr Radha Modgil is a GP and broadcaster. She has a love for medical broadcasting and communicating with the public to help them empower themselves to make positive changes in their lives. Dr Radha has been the medical presenter for many shows such as, The Sex Education Show, BBC Three Make My Body Younger, CBeebies Feeling Better’, as well as appearances on BBC Breakfast, CBBC Newsround, BBC Bitesize & BBC Ideas . She is the co-host for BBC Radio 1 Life Hack’s Podcast on BBC Sounds & the resident medical expert on BBC Radio 1 Life Hacks live show. She is passionate about helping young people find all the answers and opportunities they can about the world of work – and is an advocate for encouraging more women and girls to consider a career in STEM.

I am celebrating and championing International Women’s Day, and “I Am Generation Equality: Realizing Women’s Rights” not just this Sunday – but every day. I have been lucky enough to study science and become a medical doctor in my ongoing career journey. One of my main reflections about my career is the importance of inspiring role models and teachers that I had along the way. Without them, I would not be doing what I am today.

One of my role models is my mum. She is a very resilient woman who studied to get her degree and higher degree later in life. She did this through sheer hard work and determination. At the time, she was raising four children, becoming an academic and commuting a long way to study. She told me a story about how she was writing her PhD thesis in hospital while about to go into labour with me. She took her Viva (an oral exam giving you the opportunity to defend your PhD thesis in front of a panel of academic experts) whilst being very heavily pregnant – something unheard of back in those days. She came up against a lot of resistance and judgement at that time, but she did not bow to pressure to change who she was and what she wanted. I was lucky to have parents who instilled self-belief in me, and even when I myself ran out of it, would always champion me and tell me I could do anything.

Another of my role models was one of my teachers at sixth form. Again, she was an incredible inspiration, not just because she was a fantastic teacher but also because of her holistic approach to careers education and supporting students. I was inspired by her determination and belief in me. Without her, I would definitely not be in the career I am in now. There are very critical times in our education and career journey when we need support and help. When I was there, she had the insight to recognise this and gave me the support I needed at such a crucial time. For that, I will always be eternally grateful to her.

As a woman, I have received some negative & memorably presumptive comments throughout my education and career. I have come up against resistance, negative attitudes and judgements to being a woman in STEM. One comment that springs to mind was someone saying I would be “more comfortable in the kitchen than in a science lab”. Comments like these are clearly untrue, wrong, upsetting, hurtful and did trigger some self-doubt within me at the time. But I reflected, and with support from the right people around me, it actually fired up the desire in me to succeed. It handed me an opportunity to turn these criticisms into something I could use constructively; not to put myself down, as they had been intended, but paradoxically actually to do the exact opposite and propel myself forward.

Even though I was able to do this, women and girls everywhere should not have to deal with these kinds of attitudes. And that’s why I am sharing my experiences – and some tips that I have learned throughout my career so far.

Here are some pearls of wisdom for women and girls going into a STEM career – and for anyone who has a dream they want to fulfil. I still find these tips useful today:

  1. Believe in yourself.
    Realise your enjoyment and potential for a career in STEM. Question any attitudes that make you feel differently. It is really important to surround yourself with people who believe in you, give you good advice and build you up. If you come across anyone who has a negative attitude to women in STEM careers, don’t let it affect your self-belief, self-esteem or your dreams. Realise it is about them and not you, and talk to someone you trust about how you feel. Whatever you do, don’t let their attitudes affect yours. Sometimes coming up against obstacles can make you even stronger in your resolve if you know how to handle them.
  2. Find a role model or someone who inspires you.
    It might be someone you know – like a teacher, a parent of one of your friends, or it could be a public figure, or even someone from history. When you find that person who inspires you and you can see a part of your story in theirs, you can learn from them. Not only with practical solutions, ideas and taking actions to get where you want to be, but also from their resilience and determination to get where they want to be.
  3. Opportunity is your friend.  
    Get out there and ask for it, take up and create as many opportunities as you can in the field of STEM you are interested in. Don’t be afraid to ask your school’s Careers Leader, your teachers or approach STEM organisations. With every opportunity you take up or try to create, you not only build resilience and cement what you want, but you also give yourself the message that you are gaining confidence in yourself. Even if some say no or don’t reply, you have not lost anything, instead, you’ve gained in your self-belief that led you to reach out.
  4. Be flexible in your approach.
    We are often led to believe when we are growing up that life’s journey is a straight path that should always go the way we want it to. Life, however, has twists and turns, just like getting into the career you want to get in to. So be flexible in your approach and even if you feel you are taking a few steps back, they may actually just be steps sideways. So, stop, think and reflect on where you are, and more importantly what you can do now to get to where you want to be.
  5. Never give up.
    Progress towards anything can be tough and there will be times you feel lost or unsure, and that’s ok. We can’t always be moving forward and sometimes we need periods of reflection and consolidation. If you are facing a tough time, try to remember why you wanted to do whatever it might be in the first place. Go back to your intentions and the ‘why’. That will help you figure out the next step and keep looking forward and moving towards your dream. Persistent action in the direction you want to move in, will take you closer to it. So never give up.