Breaking barriers for women in roads sector research


05 Mar 2024

This International Women’s Day, meet Dr Yue Xie. She is a Research Fellow at the University of Cambridge working in the Future Roads Fellowship Programme who we are supporting through the Roads Research Alliance and through industry supervision.

Breaking barriers for women in roads sector research

Her research is exploring the use of autonomous driving technology and intelligent highway systems to reduce congestion and commute times, minimise accidents and reduce carbon emissions from journeys.

How has your experience been as a woman working on road sector research?

With an academic background in computer science, I’ve always seen fewer women than men in senior research positions and found the majority of people working in STEM subjects are still male. Even now I am one of only two women working in my laboratory, and all my academic supervisors are men. This can be challenging when trying to collaborate and work together, and also limits the diversity of ideas.

However, it’s been great to work closely with my industry supervisor Nicolette Formosa from National Highways, as we can collaborate easily and her industry-specific knowledge helps provide practical, real-world applications to shape my research.

I’ve also found support through other networks, such as the Rising Wise programme which allows female academics from Oxford and Cambridge University to come together to share and overcome challenges.

What does this year’s theme for International Women’s Day, ‘Invest in women: accelerate progress’, mean to you?

For me, this is a reminder that now is the time to invest in women and help them become the senior researchers of the future. As a woman in engineering it can be even harder to find funding and resources. Investing in women isn’t just about financial investment but also ensuring that everyone has access to valuable resources like mentorship and support.

What would you like to see change in STEM research?

I’d like to see a more gender-equal workplace with more women in positions across all research levels and STEM subjects. We need greater gender equality in engineering to allow for more diverse thinking and to help us respond to the challenges of the future. To do this I think we need to support rising stars and encourage more women into junior academic positions. For this to happen we need everyone to know that engineering and STEM subjects are for women too.

Have you experienced any challenges as a Chinese woman working on roads sector research?

As a short Asian woman it’s easy to be ignored in some environments. But I have found that my voice is often listened to in academia, but sometimes this is because of the stereotypes placed on Asian women. I have found people often assume I’m very studious and only output driven, but come on everyone it’s 2024! We all want a personal life and a work-life balance! I’m lucky the University of Cambridge has an international community and understands the impact of negative stereotypes.

If you could wave a magic wand what would you like the future to look like for women in research?

As much as I’m grateful for all the support and mentorship I’ve been lucky to receive, in the future I hope that we won’t need special programmes specifically designed to support and mentor women. The fact we still need these groups shows there are barriers to women reaching senior positions in research. In the future I hope we will have removed these barriers and will be able to focus on our collective challenges instead.

Lastly, do you have any advice for women considering a career in STEM research?

I found my first year of my PhD really tough and experienced a lot of self-doubt during this time. My advice would be to remember that it’s okay to doubt yourself sometimes and that everyone feels this way. But always remember that despite what you think, you will get through every challenge and nail it in the end!

Read more about Dr Yue Xie’s research