International Women's Day (Thursday, March 8) gives us all an opportunity to pause and reflect on our working lives and what is important.

This year's theme is all about inspiration and what people and organisations are doing to breakdown barriers challenge stereotypes and create environments where all women are valued and respected.

The University of Surrey is working very hard to be a forward-looking and inclusive organisation valuing all the contributions from the women who work and study there, and fostering a co-operative and inclusive culture for all. 

There is a small charity based in the School of Maths and Physics at the university that also works tirelessly to break down barriers for women. 

The Daphne Jackson Trust was established in 1992 in memory of Professor Daphne Jackson – the UK's first female professor of physics appointed by the University of Surrey. 

As a high achieving woman in higher education Daphne grew increasingly frustrated at the lack of support for women returners.

Driven by this frustration, Daphne devised fellowships in the mid-1980s to support talented individuals to return to research after a career break for a family, caring or health reason.

The trust is a small organisation that has a huge impact on the lives of so many women returners as well as those with whom they work. 

Its reach goes well beyond the fellows, as engaging with the trust has meant that universities and research institutes as well as the organisations that sponsor these fellowships have addressed their attitudes to diversity and inclusion which in turn has led to positive and permanent changes in their research culture.

None more so than Surrey, as since Daphne started the fellowships herself in the 1980s, the University of Surrey has hosted more Daphne Jackson Fellowships than any other university in the UK. 

The trust is lead by Dr Katie Perry, who herself completed a physics degree and PhD at the University of Surrey while Daphne was head of the department.

Dr Katie Perry, CEO of the Daphne Jackson Trust
Dr Katie Perry, CEO of the Daphne Jackson Trust (Dr Katie Perry)

Katie says that Daphne was a great mentor to her and so she loves the way in which she can now help other women when they need it most.

She says: “I did not have a grand plan when I started out in my career, I was more like a doggedly determined mountain goat scrambling up from ledge to ledge until I reached the top of the mountain. 

“The view from the top is great and instead of just basking in the glory of getting there I feel like I am now able to unroll lots of rope ladders to help those below me get to where I am. 

“I really feel that it is my role to be a champion, a role model, an enabler to help others to enjoy the benefits of flexible and part time working in an inclusive culture, with none of the barriers that I had to overcome while getting there myself.”

She continues: “looking back to when I started out in my career there was a definite feeling that if there were barriers in your way as a woman, you simply needed to become a hurdler! 

“Thankfully now initiatives like International Women’s Day and the drive for inclusivity mean that we are dismantling the barriers instead.”

However it is still the case for many women that their working lives do not follow a straightforward path, there can be many twists and turns and roadblocks along the way, with unexpected, but sometimes very good side roads to travel.

Katie herself is a great example of this as she says that her career, and life, were not what she thought they would be, but she wouldn’t want it any other way. 

She describes herself as “charity CEO, nuclear physicist, science communicator, busy single mum to adorable, strong willed and now 24 year old daughter, carer for parent, pop star (maybe not, but people do love my name), mother of stubborn dachshund (my new favourite child, according to other favourite child!), passionate advocate and enabler of flexible and part time working for all women, gin drinker and when I have the time, a pretty good cook!”

By Michelle Monaghan