female engineer

Tackling engineering’s gender gap doesn’t end in the classroom

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Persuading more girls to consider careers in science and engineering will involve exploding some well-established myths - along with a few wheelie bins.

Over the past 15 years, there has been a significant effort to inspire women and girls of all ages to consider taking STEM subjects in school and to go onto careers in science and engineering, but it’s an ongoing challenge.

Although more girls are attending school globally than ever before, they remain significantly under-represented in STEM subjects. Today’s UN International Day of Women and Girls in Science is a welcome opportunity to celebrate female role models in STEM careers and the many initiatives and campaigns that are vital drivers of change.

In my experience, one of the biggest challenges remains the need to dispel myths and culturally embedded gender stereotypes. One initiative that really stood out for me was Jaguar’s campaign to mark last year’s UN International Women in Engineering Day. Children were asked to draw what they thought a car engineer looked like and were shocked to find out that the real engineer was a woman.

This campaign resonated with me for many reasons. Gender misconception is something I regularly see first-hand in schools and it has the potential to have a real impact on our economy if left unaddressed. Jobs of the future will be driven by technology and innovation and if the gender divide in STEM isn’t bridged soon, the overall gender gap is likely to widen.

I frequently conduct outreach work in schools to engage with students of all ages and try to help them discover the possibilities that a career in science or technology could hold. It’s not enough just talking to them. Sometimes, to encourage inspiration, you must prove the power of science.

One of my favourite demonstrations is launching a wheelie bin 30ft into the air using a pop bottle and some liquid nitrogen to demonstrate the power of thermodynamics. The look of wonder and shock on students’ faces is definitely worthwhile.

These programs shouldn’t start and end in the classroom. I passionately believe that science and engineering‐focused engagement activities need to be applied consistently throughout school and university careers, to ensure the next generation believe that a successful STEM career is something that is a worthwhile and accessible endeavour.

Once women have secured roles in the industry, companies need to nurture them and guide them to make the most of their skills. I am lucky enough to work at a company that promotes recruitment, retention and promotion policies. These initiatives, as well as continuous learning and up-skilling for women, can go a long way towards closing the gender-gap across the industry.

Mentoring is another initiative that I passionately believe can help promote a growing mindset in young girls. With too-few women in decision-making roles and higher-paying STEM jobs, the industry is lacking inspirational female leaders which younger girls can look up to. Mentoring could help bridge this disparity.

Mentors - both good and bad - can have a huge impact on someone’s career. I like to describe them as mentors and ‘anti-mentors’. I believe that one of the most formative learning experiences you can have is to learn from watching someone else. If that mentor is doing something wrong or struggling, you can learn a lot about how not to do something. I speak from experience when I say that anti-mentors can teach girls the important lesson that just because one person shows them one way to do something, it doesn’t always mean it’s the only way or that it is right for them. Having a trusted counsel can really encourage women to think outside the box and apply their own knowledge.

Widening the belief systems of young girls could also be the key to engagement. By encouraging and developing new ways of thinking through school activities and supporting mentors, girls will learn to understand that intelligence can be developed – they move away from the notion of a ‘fixed mindset’ in which intelligence is static. One of the biggest hurdles I have witnessed in schools is the idea that maths and science expertise is inherited. Scientists and engineers are made, not born.

Broadening girls’ awareness of how skills can be developed will help them start actively seeking challenges and to persist when they encounter obstacles – knowing they can learn and grow from these experiences. This will equip girls and women to overcome the many barriers that they may face during their STEM career.

My journey into science wasn’t straightforward, but the roots were there from childhood: I was given a chemistry set at the age of 10 and my dad, an electrical engineer, used to let me work with him on a Saturday. Admittedly, I initially wanted to be a vet, but that didn’t work out and I ended up studying material science.

Just as well. You don’t get to blow wheelie bins into the air as a vet.

Dr Rachael Ambury is senior scientist and project lead at De Beers’ synthetic diamond manufacturer Element Six. She was the 2019 recipient of the Institute of Materials, Minerals and Mining’s Robert Perrin Award, which recognises outstanding commitment to outreach activity targeted at students aged between 11 and 19.

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