On International Women & Girls in Science Day, we hear the lived experiences of some of the women who have achieved hugely successful careers across different scientific disciplines, and today form key pillars in the Chester Zoo team.
In wildlife conservation, as in all sciences, creating a space rich in equality makes us stronger as a whole. It brings together different perspectives and knowledge, allows all ideas to be heard, and invites people of all backgrounds to celebrate and participate in scientific discoveries.
The Chester Zoo team includes countless women who have achieved extraordinary careers in the face of multiple barriers placed in their path. Today we’re hearing the unique stories of four of them, each having journeyed through four different scientific disciplines to be here now, making huge strides in wildlife conservation.
Cathy Partington, Facilities and Development Director
“My role is to lead and deliver the physical development of the zoo and wider land holding, including maintenance, refurbishment and new build projects to meet the strategic development plan.
“I am a chartered civil engineer. I’m not your archetypical engineer. I have no family history of engineering and did not spend my formative years building Lego models! I wasn’t even very keen on maths or physics at school.
“I knew I wanted a varied job and not one that chained me to a desk 9-5 because of my love of the outdoors! My A-level physics lecturer suggested an insight into engineering course and from there I went on to do a sandwich course at Loughborough University in Civil Engineering. I was sponsored by Taylor Woodrow, a main contractor, and went onto work for them for 17 years after graduating. I started as a site engineer and progressed to project manager.”
“I love that I can apply my experience and expertise creating some fantastic exhibits and playing my part in preventing extinction.”
Cathy Partington, Facilities & Development Director
“Although the number of women in the construction industry has doubled in the last 10 years we’re still the minority. I remember in my earlier career feeling that I needed to keep my head down and almost work harder to justify my place in the team at times. I am a driven individual and worked hard to gain respect of my peers and did sacrifice things in my personal life as a result.
“However, it is incredibly rewarding and standing back at the end of a project and feeling proud of what you’ve achieved is a fantastic feeling. Engineers can do anything – quoting one of my former operations directors!
“Working at a zoo wasn’t something I’d ever envisaged possible but when the opportunity came along it was just too good not to grab with both hands and I love that I can apply my experience and expertise creating some fantastic exhibits and playing my part in preventing extinction.”
Dr Sue Walker, Head of Science
“I feel like I have been in a very privileged position throughout my education and career. I have always done well at school and doors seemed to open for my undergraduate and graduate degrees. I also felt like I fell into my first opportunity to lead and build an amazing science department at Chester Zoo.
“However looking back, I am not sure any of this was by accident. I believe the reason it felt so seamless to me is a result of the women I had in front of me, pulling me through from my childhood to where I am today.
“I grew up in Toronto Canada, where both my grandmother and mother were true trailblazers for their time – they broke every barrier put in front of women. They founded and ran businesses in male dominated sectors and completed degrees ‘on the side’, all while raising a family. Neither of them were women that fit a stereotypical model in the eras they were living in.
“Therefore, as I grew up, I was taught to see a barrier as an opportunity to grow, something to head towards. As a family we never openly talked about any of this, it was more of just a given, I think as a result the women in my family just set me on a trajectory where I believed without question all opportunities were open to me.”
“Both my Grandmother and Mother were true trailblazers for their time – they broke every barrier put in front of women.”
Dr Sue Walker, Head of Science
“Then as I progressed through my degrees and employment, I have always had female line mangers, supervisors or mentors. I don’t know if that was by chance or if I subconsciously was always looking for that same ethos my family had to keep pulling me through. Every single one of them, like my family did for me, empowered me to visualise the next step and enabled opportunities.
“I was once told, “you don’t want to go into science it is too tough, you’ll never make it – why not take an easier career path?”. When I look back now, I believe it was the women in my family and throughout my career that without a doubt got to where I am today by simply by teaching me to believe in my abilities. I did the hard work, but I think I was able to this because I was taught to believe I would succeed.”
Kat Finch, Conservation Scientist
“My role at the zoo is Conservation Scientist: Behaviour and Welfare. My job involves collecting and analysing animal behaviour data in order to facilitate the implementation of evidence-based management decisions for the species we look after at the zoo. I can be working with tortoises in the morning and orangutans in the afternoon and the variety that I have from day to day is one of the reasons that I love my job.
“I entered the world of applied zoo research through the Chester Zoo one-year placement programme in Behaviour and Welfare. This year was a career-defining experience for me and I’ve never looked back! After completing my undergraduate and postgraduate degrees I have worked at ZSL-Whipsnade Zoo and am delighted to be back on the Science Team at Chester.”
“I have seen that women supporting each other and working together can be a force of nature and the value of this goes way beyond the fantastic work outputs that they produce.”
Kat Finch, Conservation Scientist
“I cannot emphasise enough the positive and motivating influence that seeing women in senior leadership positions has had on me. I have seen that women supporting each other and working together can be a force of nature and the value of this goes way beyond the fantastic work outputs that they produce. My advice for any young women considering a career in science would be to never doubt yourself and support your female friends and colleagues in achieving their ambitions.”