A Woman In Engineering’s Perspective On The Challenges For Women In STEM
Engineering remains the most male-dominated field in STEM. The UK has the lowest percentage of women engineering professionals in Europe at just 11%, and only 1% of engineering and technology graduates are women. Considering that the UK has a shortfall of skilled labour that requires 124,000 new engineers per year, this is an issue that urgently needs to be tackled in order to meet the technological challenges of the future.
To discuss these issues and more, we spoke with Hazel Bradley, Deputy Customer Services Director within Military Programs at Collins Aerospace. After graduating university with a degree in chemical engineering, Hazel moved into operations management within manufacturing, before moving into customer-facing program management and joining the Collins team in November of 2021. Having worked within engineering for the past 15 years, Hazel works hard alongside the rest of the Collins team to advocate for other women looking to break into the sector, as well as tackle the social and environmental barriers faced by women in science and technology.
For decades, efforts to encourage women into STEM careers has mainly focused on promoting girls’ interest in maths and science. Such efforts appear to be paying off, with the number of female students choosing core STEM subjects at A-level slowly but surely rising year-on-year. In higher education, the number of women accepted onto full-time STEM undergraduate courses in the UK has also increased by 50.1% between 2011 and 2020. As Hazel notes, “It seems a lot of work that has been done to engage children early on in school is paying dividends, as statistically girls are continuing to outperform boys in the majority of STEM subjects with 67% achieving A*- C grades, compared with 63% of boys. The issue, however, is that this doesn’t seem to translate into career choices. Girls have so many preconceptions about what being an engineer means, and some of them have likely never encountered a woman who works within the sector. That’s why it’s so important that we continue to share what being an engineer means. It’s not all dirt, boots and high vis jackets. It's networking, it’s problem solving, brainstorming ideas, and working together in a fast-paced, global team environment. It’s varied, it’s well paid, and it can be an extremely rewarding career choice. The message needs to women and girls needs to be ‘if you can see it, you can be it’.”
The Confidence Gap
In addition to the social and psychological barriers that prevent women from entering STEM careers in the first place, 40% of women who earn engineering degrees either never enter the profession at all, or quit within a short timeframe. Part of the reason for this lies in the fact that women within the industry are still subject to prejudice and discrimination, as well as undervalued for their work, as Hazel explains; “Even today, it’s not uncommon for women to be underpaid compared to their male peers. They’ll also be talked over, asked to take minutes in a meeting simply because they’re the only woman in the room, and excluded from conversations happening around them. When I was new to the industry, all these things frustrated me greatly.” Furthermore, research has demonstrated that women are more likely to doubt their own abilities than men, a phenomenon known as the ‘confidence gap’. Some of the factors that contribute towards this are a lack of female role models and mentorship programmes, as well as company cultures which fail to celebrate difference. As Hazel notes, “For so many women, I really think confidence in their own ability is a key factor within the first few years of their career, which are often the hardest. In some businesses, there’s also no wider support system for women to turn to when things get tough. They don’t have access to the same built-in mentorship system that men do, which places them at a disadvantage from the outset.”
Added to this complex landscape is the fact that STEM companies often aren’t structured to accommodate the specific needs of women. In fact, of the 40% of women who end up leaving engineering roles, one-third do so in order to stay home with children because their company could not, or would not, allow the flexibility for their caregiving needs. Even if an organisation does make an effort to cater to the needs of women, there’s evidence to suggest that motherhood can have a knock-on effect on salary for several years to follow. In effect this means that women in engineering receive an 11% salary penalty for being married with children.
Engineering the future
Luckily, Collins Aerospace is extremely engaged and proactive when it comes to shifting the needle when it comes to recruiting and retaining women in engineering, and maintaining gender equality in the workplace. As Hazel explains, “This is something we’re all really passionate about, which is why we put so much effort into making a positive difference. Women currently represent about 20% of our engineering senior roles, and 6% of our fellows community. Although this is well above the national average, we are determined to do even better. This is why last year we launched LIFT - Leading Inspired Females in Technology. This is a homegrown, Collins-wide initiative focused on improving these numbers and advancing female technical talent. Our vision is to create an inclusive, connected organisation in which women achieve extraordinary outcomes in technology, and feel comfortable bringing their authentic selves to work every day. Our initiatives include sponsorship, reverse mentoring, and events throughout the year for everyone to attend which feature a dynamic panel of speakers highlighting the importance of diversity, equity and inclusion.”
Hazel Bradley, Deputy Customer Services Director within Military Programs at Collins Aerospace
As companies such as Collins continue to make concerted efforts to encourage and support women engineers, the future for women within the profession is certainly looking brighter. Hazel is a firm believer that potential barriers shouldn’t phase the next generation, and that the challenges she’s faced are outweighed by the satisfaction she enjoys in her role today: “I would highly encourage any girls or women thinking of entering a career in engineering to go for it. It doesn’t mean spending 30 years in a design or manufacturing role – it can lead to a huge variety of roles and responsibilities. I feel incredibly fortunate to have chosen this path, and supporting products in a real-world environment is incredibly rewarding. I get to work as part of a team, solve problems, network, and travel the globe. Every time I travel on a plane with my family, I think, “I helped to design, manufacture, and support the creation of this aircraft. I did my bit” and that’s hugely rewarding.”
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