Rachel Youngman is the Deputy Chief Executive of the Institute of Physics. She also chairs the charity Hibiscus, and sits on the Advisory Board of Quantum Hub for Sensors and Measurements. She has previously been CEO of READ International, the Haemophilia Society, and the Prisoner’s Education Trust. This follows a career as an international lawyer focused on social justice. Here, she reflects on how leaders can help create a fairer future and poses a challenge to her peers.
How did your professional background lead you to the world of physics?
My career started in the international legal profession. I then decided to dedicate myself to social justice and human rights– and after a time I landed in the world of physics, where I was brought in because of my strong background in leadership, management and cultural change.
My leadership expertise lies in how to make an organisation stronger, more fit for purpose, leaner, more agile, and yet still able to think about social value. Of course, it's important to be financially viable, but financially viable in order to deliver a social purpose.
So I came to the Institute of Physics for the same reason I went to other organisations: they needed someone to come in and support what was a change process. But I stayed, and that has allowed me to appreciate and promote the incredible work that physics does.
What does physics have to do to be part of a fairer society?
“This isn’t about “wokeism”; it's just a fact that good, diverse, teams make for better solutions.”
People think of physics as the hard subject they dropped at school. But it’s incredibly important to society: we're in the midst of a climate crisis, for one thing, and we need to find solutions. But at the same time, I am aware that fairness, accessibility and inclusion simply do not exist as well as they could for those that come into and work in physics.
We need to make sure that the solutions that physicists create come from diverse teams. This isn’t about “wokeism”; it's just a fact that good, diverse, teams make for better solutions.
How can the IOP help create a fairer future?
I’ve mentored young people for many years, and what's always worried me is that problems are often pushed back onto them: they're not doing the things they should be doing, they're not working hard enough, they're stopping themselves from being successful, and so on. In reality, there are so many blocks and barriers put in their way
Now, you've got to have an aptitude for a subject, and I'm not suggesting that everyone should do physics. Some people probably will still hate it! But what we see too often is that young people don't have positive influencers around them who say, “if you want to do this, you can do it”.
The approach I took was to say, “Okay, this isn't just a problem for physics, it starts in society. Let's try and work from there.” The stereotypes about physics and the barriers to getting into it are quite deep rooted in society, and those are the things we're trying to unblock.
What have you learned from leading organisations through difficult times – from stakeholder disagreements to making the call to shut down operations?
Imagine a Venn diagram with a “governance” circle and an “executive” circle. I think it would be fair to say that in 90% of the positions I found myself in, the organisation had lost the intersection between those two circles – the place where the board, the chief executive, and the executive team were strongly aligned and able to collaborate.
I have learned to work with the chair to close that gap, often before they then brought in whoever was going to be their permanent chief executive. The goal is to realign on purpose and priorities, so that whoever came in was arriving at an organisation that was robust, stable, fit for purpose, and really delivering on the social side.
How would you encourage every business leader to see being a force for good as part of their role?
“Organisations that don't think about their social impact might find themselves heading towards difficult times.”
For any organisation, building a fairer society starts with thinking hard not just about who you are talking to, but even more importantly, who you're listening to. There’s enough evidence now to demonstrate that there’s a business return on investment in diversity and inclusion, which in turn is good for a fairer society. If you look at one of the standard Environment, Social, Governance (ESG) frameworks, it is the S part that is complex. I’m working with organisations, including in physics, to make sure the framework is robust and builds trust for now and future generations.
Those in commercial organisations still have to look at the bottom line. But this doesn’t precludes thinking about the social context. If anything, I think organisations that don't think about their social impact might find themselves heading towards difficult times.
If you could put one challenge to all of your peers, what would it be?
Continue to listen to diverse voices: as many voices as you possibly can, including those that are seen or thought of as non-traditional. Think about your role as a responsible leader and making ethical decisions. I have learned more by doing that than I have by sticking close to my immediate peers.
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