Girls: stick with it

Article by Parika Ale - Air Products

Parika: don't be afraid to be the only girl

TODAY is International Women in Engineering Day, and while 16% of engineering students are female, women still only make up 9% of the engineering workforce in the UK, according to the Women’s Engineering Society. So are girls giving up on STEM during education, rather than pursuing a career in industry? How can female engineering students stay motivated?

I’m a chemical engineering graduate at Air Products and I am so glad I stuck with it. In my experience, there are a lot of barriers for women who want to pursue STEM education, and further barriers that make it difficult to follow through with that education to a career in industry.

I believe the existing gender imbalance in engineering is self-perpetuating. The lack of women in the industry puts the next generation of women off and it never gets balanced out. So how can women and girls stay enthused with chemical engineering and, ultimately, stick at it into the working world?

Don’t be afraid to be the only girl

When I was at school, I had no particular interest in engineering. I loved maths and I loved solving problems, but I didn’t see myself becoming an engineer. Luckily, as it turned out, my school was investing heavily in its technical facilities at the time and my teacher, recognising my interest in maths and problem-solving, encouraged me to enrol in the Mechanical Engineering BTEC course.

I was one of two girls to sign up to the course and, when we saw the 25 boys we’d be sharing the class with, my friend dropped out. I very nearly quit as well, especially after I was left as the only girl, but my teachers convinced me to stay on the course. I’m really glad they did.

Seek out any government and industry schemes that offer real-world experience

During my studies I was selected to be a part of the Tomorrow’s Engineers programme, led by a government-appointed engineering committee and, as a result, got a placement at a local engineering business that manufactured the mechanical components of satellites. During my placement I was challenged to design and build a flexible book stand for people with cerebral palsy who struggled with the stability of their vision.

Managing a real project from start to finish that actually helped people was a Eureka! moment for me. It made it really clear the positive impact I could have on the world by pursuing a career in engineering. It was an intensely invigorating experience.

Explore the options open to you

Through my college experience I came to learn that there were much wider possibilities that engineering in general could offer. With lots of engineering disciplines to choose from, I asked my teachers if there was anything else I could study at university that would offer a broader scope of opportunity and satiate my love of physics, maths, engineering, chemistry and biology. They suggested I try chemical engineering.

I ended up following that advice and went to the University of Surrey to study for my Master’s degree in chemical engineering. Although more balanced than at school, the boys still outweighed the girls 2:1 in the classroom, with 40 male and 20 female students. But the evenly-balanced gender representation of our tutors went a long way to making the experience more enjoyable.

I felt that I was able to be more frank and confident with my female lecturers, especially in one-to-one tutoring sessions, because they could empathise with me as a woman, and also because they understood firsthand the struggles of being female in a male-dominated industry.

Do an undergraduate placement

As part of my degree, I was required to do a one-year placement in industry to prepare myself for the working world. I chose to apply to Air Products, one of the world’s leading industrial gas companies, and I was lucky enough to be accepted.

This placement was another hugely impactful experience for me. No longer was I doing theoretical work, I was writing process specifications for equipment such as adsorption vessels, control and instrument valves and pressure relief valves that would be used in real safety systems. In other words: real work. In fact, the level of responsibility I was trusted with was a bit of a shock. And, for a business that describes itself simply as an industrial gas company, I was blown away by the varied and exciting work they were doing in a huge range of different industries. I was also really impressed with the balance of male to female employees working for Air Products.

Find a graduate scheme that works for you

As a direct result of my year-long placement, I was offered a place on Air Products’ graduate scheme. I completed my Master’s in June 2015 and started work that August. The graduate scheme at Air Products is a five-year programme where graduates rotate through five different job roles; I’m currently on my second. For the first year I worked as asset management & efficiency engineer, which saw me monitoring and managing the efficiency of all our air separation plants across Europe and, since September, I’ve been working as an equipment engineer, supporting the whole European arm of the business by designing new equipment to meet project demands.

This approach appealed to my desire to not define myself too early on. It is giving me the opportunity to sample lots of different roles before I choose what I want to do permanently. It’s also helping me to build up a portfolio of skills so that I can demonstrate the core competencies necessary to achieve Chartered status by the end of the five-year scheme.

I’m really grateful to have ended up at Air Products, with a varied and exciting career ahead of me. I couldn’t have asked for anything better. Looking back to the room full of boys in my BTEC classroom, I’m relieved my 15-year-old self was able to hold out; it would have been easy to quit but my education, career, and life would’ve been drastically different than it is now.

Stick with it

My advice to female students is to stick with chemical engineering through education and into the working world. The sheer scope it can offer you makes the barriers worth overcoming. I also think real-world experience is extremely beneficial during your education in keeping you interested and enthusiastic about the subject. Likewise, finding the right graduate scheme for you is critical. I was really lucky with Air Products and I can’t recommend it enough.

I sincerely hope the industry and government will keep up the good work with science, technology, engineering and maths schemes and make sure women are represented in the classroom, the R&D lab, and the office so that students like me benefit from the experience of mentors and peers that understand what it means to be a female engineer.

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