Interview with Rachel Youngman, deputy CEO at the Institute of Physics

Rachel Youngman is deputy CEO at the Institute of Physics and an expert on culture change and creating sustainable solutions in business.

She spent many years working in social justice particularly with young people and part of her role at IOP is to increase the number of girls and others currently underrepresented in the physics community who currently study the subject at 16.

Rachel recently discussed the issue of the gender disparity in physics uptake with the Commons’ Science and Technology Select Committee.

Now Rachel talks to Talented Ladies Club about her work to promote diversity and inclusion in STEM, and how her career in the legal profession, social justice and now science is converging.

Did you ever see yourself working at the top level of a STEM body?

I’m afraid I wasn’t the slightest bit interested in science at school, although to be fair it wasn’t terribly well taught. I imagined I’d end up in the world of STEM. But it has been the most incredible opportunity. I find physicists so unassuming and yet when I hear about their work and the impact on our lives, I’m in complete awe! 

I’ve spent most of my career in the charity sector, and the common threads running through my career are the importance of evidence, fairness and searching for truth. Having started in an international legal NGO, I moved into human rights and social justice. I’ve led social justice organisations and have also consulted for several UK Government departments.  

In many respects the Institute of Physics (IOP) has been a good fit to draw all my career threads together. Particularly, the opportunity to use my background in social justice to tackle the lack of diversity in physics and the challenges with inclusion.

How did your upbringing influence your career choices?

I think our start in life and the influence of those around us has a huge impact. I always knew I was adopted. My heritage was originally thought to be an Indian and Malayan mix, yet later on was proven to be Scottish and Iranian.

I used to say to people that I know who I am, but not what I am. I faced racist comments growing up, but I was lucky that my parents helped me to face the world, to find my place and have a loud enough voice. My dad was a lawyer and my mum was a social worker. So I had two very positive influences which, as much as I might not want to admit it, can be seen in my career choices! 

What led you to start campaigning at IOP? 

What I immediately saw at the IOP is that young people are put off physics at a young age and that isn’t the fault of physics or physicists. Importantly it’s not the fault of young people either, but it is a fault line that still runs deep in a society that tends to stereotype.

What I wanted to do is to tackle the problems where they start in society and pull them out at their roots so they can’t grow back. That is the purpose of the IOP’s LimitLess campaign, which I launched in 2020. We have a super smart team of people who campaign in spaces where young people are influenced, and our members share the messages of the campaign at public events around the country.  

Together we are steadily creating a movement of people and organisations in society who are hearing and joining our call for change. 

Do you think of yourself as an activist? 

I have heard that some physicists label me as the social justice activist now working for the Institute of Physics.

To be fair, I would be first in line to demonstrate outside Parliament for the rights of all young people to have equal access to a physics education. But before anyone thinks I’m about to glue myself to the pavement, I also know it’s important to be armed with all the relevant evidence and that includes the strong economic case for improving diversity and inclusion.

My job is to calmly put that evidence across to people in positions of power as I did to the Select Committee for Science and Technology a few weeks ago.  There is a time and a place for all campaigning methods to be used. I can be very outspoken but not all the time! 

What does success mean to you?

For me personally I think success is reflected on the impact you have on others. I hope to see young people flourish, especially in areas that I myself was once held back. If I can feel I have had a positive impact on the next generation, and opened up opportunities that otherwise would not have existed for them, I will consider myself successful. 

Who have been the most influential people in your life?

I’ve mentioned my parents and they were influential, and that doesn’t stop now they are no longer here.  

One of my early mentors was a very influential Wall Street lawyer. He founded a large commercial law firm and was still going into his office well into his 90’s.  He was rather stern and terrified me when I first met him. But over the years we formed a strong friendship and I remember him telling me that with all my idealistic spirit of wanting to save the world, not to forget the importance of applying strong business principles.  

He had a good point and I’ve tried to remember that in all my work, so perhaps he is the reason why I can rein back on my inner activist when needed!

How can schools encourage girls to study physics?

I was really disappointed and frustrated by the recent comments made by the Social Mobility Commissioner that girls don’t like physics because of the hard maths. The evidence shows that girls do really well at physics and maths, but also that girls and other underrepresented groups are often told that physics isn’t a subject for them, and a lot of that evidence comes to us direct from young people. 

To increase the number of girls studying physics we need to dispel the idea that it is a subject full of men in white lab coats. Schools have a responsibility to re-write the script on what a physicist is and create an inclusive environment that involves the whole school and tackles outdated stereotypes and myths.

We also need to recruit and retain more specialist physics teachers and that means investing in their continuing professional development, particularly so those that don’t have a physics qualification are confident to teach the subject.  

Do you think the LimitLess campaign will make a difference?

It takes time because physics has so many barriers, myths and stereotypes to dispel, but I can see that it already is making a difference and its only just getting fire in its engine after a lot of very careful research and planning.  

For example it was difficult to find good physics content on media platforms, but that campaign has now made sure that YouTube has good physics content on their learning platform. The National Literacy Trust has huge reach to parents, carers and young people and it now has information on physics’ careers to show the hugely diverse jobs you can do by studying physics.  

That simply didn’t exist before LimitLess. By far the largest reach has been through Influencers on TikTok. They have reached over 1.5 million people by using our campaign messages in a way that is fun.  The mainstream media are starting to take notice of Limit Less, and that is essential to get our campaign messages out to more people.  

At the start of the pandemic you commissioned IOP’s first podcast series, Looking Glass. How has the podcast helped to explain the role of IOP and the work of physicists?

The podcast was launched in celebration of the IOP’s 100th Anniversary in 2020 at the height of the pandemic and very shortly after the murder of George Floyd. I was running during lockdown and listening to podcasts and thought it might be a different way for us to look to the future and think about our place in society – the voices of physicists and the relevance of a 100 year old organisation.

The first series brought together diverse voices to tackle subjects that ranged from cancel culture to health inequality and we were really pleased with the feedback. We’ve gone on to commission two more series looking at the green economy and climate solutions.

We are on target to reach 100,000 downloads by the end of series three later this summer which is an incredible figure. I’ve been told that young physicists have joined IOP because of Looking Glass and how we are not afraid to tackle the subjects they care about. That’s brilliant! 

Our hope is that listeners have a better insight into just how important the work of physicists is to expand our understanding of the natural world and how that understanding can create solutions, whether that is new materials for high efficiency solar cells, the fluid dynamics of wind turbine blade design, or breakthrough concepts that, if they work, could revolutionise the way we get energy!

On the subject of climate, you have spoken out on the importance of responsible leadership. What advice would you give to Talented Ladies Club readers?

Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) factors are important issues to be considered by all business leaders. And where your readers implement these considerations, they are leading by example. 

For any business or organisation like IOP, building a fairer society starts with thinking hard about who you are listening to. Evidence demonstrates that a business will get a positive return on investment in diversity and inclusion, which in turn makes for a fairer society.

If you look at the standard Environment, Social, Governance frameworks, it is the S part that is really complex. How do we make the right decisions for our workforce, customers, clients, and members now that considers the needs of the next generation? It can be done by asking the right questions. As a non-executive director myself, this is constantly in my mind. 

What does the future hold for Rachel Youngman?

I like to explore the world, understand the social and economic challenges and create solutions. I’ve been doing that for 30 years and I don’t plan to stop anytime soon. I’ve worked with amazing teams and there is nothing better than seeing talent flourish and fix problems when I have no idea where to even start! I hope I will see the effects of LimitLess create a lasting change.

That is something I could feel really proud of.

I remain deeply committed to the charity Hibiscus where I chair the board and see the challenges facing incredibly vulnerable migrant women. Calling for policy change to decisions such as the Rwanda deportations will remain a priority. 

Looking to the future, I want to continue to use the platform I have to improve diversity and inclusion and help organisations tackle complex ethical questions about the impact of decisions on the next generation. 

There is nothing “woke” about that. Organisations like IOP will only thrive if they are relevant. So I hope my background will continue to be important when advising organisations and regulators on effective ways to work towards their net zero targets whilst remaining strongly rooted in diversity and inclusion.

We must think about what it means to be responsible leaders who are willing to take ethical decisions. We must be transparent for a generation that places an emphasis on values. It was interesting to see the High Court ruling that charities should align to the goals of the Paris Agreement on climate change when deciding their financial investments. That is a significant shift. 

I know it is easy to say the words “inclusion and sustainability”, but they are deeply complex if you are running a business and trying to get decisions right that build trust and growth whilst going through a recession. It places a huge responsibility on those of us in leadership roles to make careful and good decisions so we don’t let down the next generation.  

I hope that helping organisations to make those good decisions, bringing diverse voices together, and campaigning, will continue to be an increasingly important part of my future.