Why STEM needs more female pioneers to break the mould. Alice Dyer speaks to the Small Robot Company’s Catherine Pratt

Despite being a distant relative of the famous agriculturalist, Jethro Tull, Catherine Pratt’s life and work had no link to farming until she started her job as chief operating officer at the Small Robot Company last May.

With an aptitude for maths and science, after completing a degree in maths and economics, Catherine’s career began as an IT consultant for IBM, where she got her first taste for systems analysis.

Catherine’s problem-solving nature has since seen her work in technical analysis and project management roles for corporations including Sky, energy company SSE, British Gas and Ordnance Survey.

Her first encounter as a woman in a male dominated industry was when she landed one of the first graduate consulting positions at IBM in 2004, where the company prided itself on the fact that 25% of their workforce were women.

“They were well ahead of the others and there was a huge amount of pride around that statistic, which I always thought was a bit sad, but I get it,” says Catherine.

Fifteen years later, women are still hugely underrepresented in the tech industries, making up just 17% of the workforce, according to online careers advice service Women In Tech. A statistic not helped by the ‘archaic’ attitudes within some companies, says Catherine.

She adds: “Being a woman in a position where you went into meetings as the knowledgeable person in the room meant it was sometimes a battle to be taken seriously.

“People would assume you were in a junior or secretarial role as opposed to someone going in there to give direction and content. You almost had to prove them wrong and show them you know what you’re talking about before they’d take you seriously – it was tiring.”

But it is not the tech industry alone that needs more workers, and farmers are crying out for changes in technology, says Catherine.

“Farmers are not luddites. Because the industry hasn’t evolved from big tractors, you assume it’s a deliberate decision, but they are desperate for new technology – it just has to be the right technology.”

It was during her time at Ordnance Survey, working in programme management that Catherine met Ben, one of the Small Robot Company founders, and Joe, the chief technology officer.

She says: “Ben phoned me one day and said they were looking for someone that could put all of these ideas and processes into place.

“He described Small Robot Company’s farming as a service solution, explained what the robots would be doing and went into detail about the problems experienced in arable farming with wheat. It was an industry I knew nothing about, but everything he said made sense.

“From a complete outsider looking at the issues being experienced, and the solution that Small Robot Company wanted to put in place, you couldn’t spot the gap in the logic,” she adds.

“I couldn’t have written a better job description and for me personally he was offering me the opportunity to put my 15 years’ worth of learning into something, giving me free rein.”

Aware she had no knowledge of the agricultural industry, Catherine was confident the skills gained from her previous positions were transferable.

She says: “The value I brought to the company was being able to ascertain a problem and find a technical solution.

“You do have to take the time and effort to understand the industry, but you can merge that with your other skillset.”

For the Small Robot Company, supporting women in tech is hugely important, says Catherine.

“We held a session a couple of months back about how our workplace can be more appealing to women.

“Industries that are not stereotypically female such as programming and engineering need to develop a deeper understanding that most women have a young family, and the majority of the time they are the primary care giver.

“Knowing it’s not an object to have the flexibility to support your family and do your job is fantastic, and for me, one of the most important things.

“This is exactly the kind of behaviour that will encourage women to stay in these positions,” she says.

Balancing family life with work also means women are often well accustomed to managing complex workloads and hitting delivery dates in a creative way, making them suited to these kind of roles, she adds.

But with females making up just 7% of students taking computer science at A-Level, encouraging young women into the industry is as much of a challenge as keeping them in it.

“Children must grow up not associating gender with job roles,” says Catherine.

“I think the only way this will change is to educate our children and make these STEM jobs become the norm for everyone.

“The majority of my ex-colleagues wouldn’t consider themselves sexist, and they are lovely people, but some were unintentionally sexist. Its subconscious, so you’re trying to tackle a problem where people aren’t aware they are the problem.

“We need to bring our children up without the stigma that technology is a man’s job. It’s the same in farming – we need some really strong female role models and for kids to grow up knowing famous female farmers.

Just look at kids’ TV programmes where farmers are predominantly male. We need female pioneers in these industries to help it become the norm.”