Smashing Stereotypes: meet Alice Clifford

Smashing Stereotypes is a campaign being run during British Science Week. It aims to challenge perceptions around the science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) sectors. By sharing stories about individuals and their day-to-day work, Smashing Stereotypes demonstrates that these sectors are more diverse than many people think.

To support Smashing Stereotypes, we asked a member of our team at AudioTelligence, Dr Alice Clifford, PhD, to share some career highlights and insights in a Q and A.

As a key member of our Test Team, Alice spends her days testing complex audio devices and software, as well as making and evaluating audio recordings. Her background in software and signal processing combined with her ear for music make her a great fit for this role.  Before joining AudioTelligence, Alice obtained a PhD in audio signal processing, worked as an R&D Engineer in power electronics and also spent time teaching electronics to sound engineers. Outside work Alice enjoys playing the trombone and running – but not simultaneously!

What brought you into audio engineering? When did you realise it was something you wanted to do?

When I was younger, I was always interested in music and playing instruments. I got into programming as a teenager and later on, as I was thinking about careers,  I realised that there was this field called audio engineering and music tech that would let me combine the two things I was interested in: music and technology. I went straight into music technology, then did a Masters. During my Masters I started learning signal processing and the realisation hit me that I could actually combine programming with sound and audio. From then on I knew that this is what I wanted to be doing.

Were there any challenges you had to face along the way?

There were some personal challenges of having ‘imposter syndrome’, where you start a job and you think everybody else is going to be a lot better than you. You ask yourself ‘Why am I here’? There’s a great deal of research showing  that women suffer this more than men… What I’d say is that once you get further on in your career, you realise that you don’t have to know everything, you will learn as you go along. Especially in engineering!

Have you encountered any problems or blocks along the way due to your gender?

I’d say genuinely no, I think I’ve been lucky, because I’ve definitely heard about colleagues and peers who have had problems. In retrospect however, I realise that sometimes there have been more subtle issues happening around gender. For example: being given admin tasks which my male colleagues didn’t have to do. Or, because of the stereotype that women are better communicators, being told to be more customer facing (whereas in fact that’s not my main strength) because I was the only woman on the team. …These things weren’t necessarily roadblocks, but they made me realise that this bias does exist.

Another interesting realisation for me came from going for job interviews in engineering. As a woman, I often stood out because I was the only woman who was being interviewed, which made it more likely I would be remembered. One could argue that perhaps that gives the sole woman an advantage, but as a candidate you want to be, and should be, remembered for your skills and the experience you have, not your gender.

What would you say are the highlights of your career in engineering?

As an engineer, I think the highlight is always to see the project you’ve been working on becoming something tangible or actually being used by somebody in the real world.

A personal highlight for me was when I was doing my PhD.  I became involved with a group of women researchers  – all engineers – at Queen Mary University of London, who called themselves G-Hack. We’d get together every couple of weeks and do some knowledge sharing, teaching each other.  For example, I remember somebody did e-textiles and how you could make electronic circuits. When it was my turn I went through how to do DSP with them. We also collaborated with an art school in London, working on digital art installations with the artists. That was really fun and a great experience because I was able to apply engineering knowledge to something else. It was brilliant to be working with a group of women engineers: although we were the minority in that department we came together on this project.

What does your current role at AudioTelligence involve?

I’m a Test Engineer at AudioTelligence which means I have a really varied role: I check audio software and equipment, such as speakers and amplifiers, which I enjoy doing, but I also get to do a bit of programming, and some testing of hardware. When software is written or when we make a device, we need to put the code or the hardware through lots of tests to see how it works in various conditions. We report our findings and then the developers go back and make improvements, to make sure  that when we eventually deploy the device, there aren’t going to be any bugs. The role pulls together a lot of the quite diverse experiences that I’ve had before.

Could you tell me about the ‘Student To Stemette Programme’ you recently acted as a mentor for?

Going back to the question about challenges, I realized wherever I’ve worked or studied, there’s very rarely been women who are further along in their careers than me who could act as role models or mentors for me. I never really had the benefit of that, apart from in my previous job, where the director of engineering was a woman, which was a nice change and quite refreshing.

Now that I have been in my career for a while I feel I do have some experience that I can pass on to other women. I’ve always been passionate about trying to get more women into engineering because you need diverse engineers to develop things for the world. If all the engineers are male, then there can be unconscious bias to develop things from a male perspective.

Stemettes specifically looks at engaging women and young girls in STEM sectors. The idea is to show them that a scientist isn’t just someone who wears a white coat, or an engineer isn’t just someone who wears a hardhat on a building site. I want to help show that a career in engineering is not just about civil engineering, so I signed up for a Stemette’s mentoring program for young women and girls, age ranges 15 to 25. I met around 20 women and young girls at a speed-dating style event and it was just brilliant for me to see all these young women being so driven and passionate about engineering. I ended up mentoring a young woman who was trying to decide whether to go for medicine or engineering. My role was to give her some insight into what working in engineering actually is like, from a day-to-day perspective. Another good thing about the Stemettes program was meeting other mentors, who are also women in engineering, through networking events. Which was just great!

Do you have any advice for younger women starting in engineering?

Engineering is such a big field with so many areas you could work in – if you’re interested in something, you can find a way of working in that area – as I did, with audio and signal processing and power electronics. If there’s something that you particularly enjoy doing, then you should always aim to go work in it. This is what I was saying to these young girls at Stemettes: I was interested in music and I was interested in technology, and I found a job where I could combine both together and do something I really enjoy.



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