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Professor chips away at gender gap for more than six decades

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Published on 08 March 2018

Professor Stephanie Atkinson
Professor Stephanie Atkinson

Today we celebrate International Women's Day, a worldwide event that celebrates women's achievements – from the political to the social – while calling for gender equality. The University of Sunderland’s Professor Stephanie Atkinson, is one of those early pioneers, breaking down barriers in the 1960s to become the UK’s very first female woodwork teacher. We caught up with her to find out more about her own rise to the top of her profession, and having opened the doors for women in design and technology, how she’s been inspiring the next generation.

Despite raising a few eyebrows when she began plying her trade as a woodwork teacher in the 1960s, Professor Stephanie Atkinson went on to change the face of women working in the education system.

That passion and drive for Design and Technology has continued over six decades and led to Stephanie being honoured at the annual Design and Technology Association Annual Excellence Awards Ceremony in 2010, where she collected the ‘Outstanding Contribution to Design and Technology Education’ award - the highest possible accolade in her field.

Just a year later she found herself standing before the Queen to receivean MBE in the Birthday Honours for her services to Higher Education.

Throughout Stephanie’s career she has held senior appointments in design and technology at all levels: in schools as Head of 3D Studies, as lecturer at Loughborough University and as Principal Lecturer, Reader and now Professor at Sunderland.

She is a member of four international journal’s editorial boards. She examines PhD’s internationally and is an external examiner for several universities. Stephanie is also the external advisor for Design Technology for the International Baccalaureate Organisation.

But her outstanding contributions as a teacher, educator and researcher may not have happened had she followed the ‘norm’ of what was expected of a young girl back in the 1940s when she began tinkering around withMeccano sets instead of playing with dolls.

“It’s hard to imagine all those years ago that I would still be working today at 75 years old, but here I am! I’ll know when it’s time to give up when I see in my students’ faces that they are no longer listening to what I have to say,” explained Stephanie.

“Age is no barrier to education and I have been so lucky to have such a wonderful career, and the opportunities have helped dictate the path I have taken, there’s been no grand plan. Everyone knows how passionate I am about this subject and providing my students with an understanding of Design and Technology.”

By the time she had left school, Stephanie, originally from Monkseaton, North Tyneside, had managed to land a place at the former College of Art and Industrial Design in Newcastle, where she spotted woodwork as a module – and thought: “I fancy that”.

The mother-of-three and grandmother-of-eight, recalls there was surprisingly little resistance to her unusual career path in the beginning. Although there was one male metalwork lecturer who seemed determined to throw obstacles in her way. Yet she overcame every obstacle that fell her way and to this day has in her possession the tool she made in that metalwork class - a cold chisel - a reminder of her determination to succeed.

She said: "I still have that cold chisel, which I was so proud of when I made it!"

By the age of 22, Stephanie went on to become the very first female woodwork teacher in the country at Hamilton High School in Leicester.

“At the time there was no such thing as a woman teaching woodwork in schools, and there was quite a bit of national attention at the time,” explained the professor, from Allendale, Northumberland. “But I loved the job, the pupils were lovely and all the male teachers were great with me.

“However, it’s very different now, we have an abundance of females studying design and technology, which is fantastic, it’s a far cry from when I first started!

“But I was lucky, I have always done things that I wanted, and no one actually ever said to me ‘no you can’t’.

“At the time I never even thought about the difficulties I could possibly face, all I saw was a challenge and that I just wanted to go for it, and if I made a mistake it didn’t matter.”

She added: “This is a belief which I hope I’ve inspired in my own children and students.”

Now aged 75, explaining her own zest for life, Stephanie says: “I love to keep my brain active and working at the University keeps me young and involved in the intellectual side of work. I’m constantly updating my technical skills as my job keeps me in contact with students from as far as Outer Mongolia, to the Falkland Islands, and everywhere in between.

“Everything I do is to make our students the best they can be. And when I stop enjoying doing what I do, then I know it’s time to go!”

 Stephanie will be debating the importance of positive female role models in STEM (Science Technology Education and Maths) when she delivers a conference paper at the 36th Pupils’ Attitudes Towards Technology (PATT) Conference in June, where she will deliver her talk: "Woman’s under-representation in STEM: The part role-models have played in the past and do we still need them today?