IWD2021: Why I choose to challenge gender imbalance in STEM

genderIf we are to continue increasing gender diversity in the sector, we must actively inspire others to challenge gender bias and all forms of discrimination in STEM, says Anastasia Salemi, Project Manager, London Power Tunnels, National Grid

Today, over one million women work in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) across the UK. This number has increased by 350,000 over the last decade, reflecting an undeniable change in the attitudes, and expectations, of women in traditionally male-dominated fields. Despite these positive changes there is still more to be done, although one million may seem like a lot, in reality it is only a small percentage of the STEM workforce. As a member of the one million, I am proud to be challenging this gender bias on International Women’s Day.

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From the beginning of my career in engineering I’ve stood out because of my age, gender and nationality (being born and raised in Greece). I’m sure many other women reading this will have felt a similar sense of unease, looking around only to see a few women in the room or on site. The lack of representation can be disheartening, however as a young female engineer, it also pushed me to prove myself and encourage other women to join this profession.

The changes I’ve seen since the start of my career have been immeasurable. Organisations started supporting open public discussion and more young professionals are encouraged to act as mentors to schools and universities. Companies started investing dedicated teams to create robust strategies towards diversity & inclusion. I have been lucky to have started my career within the past decade and moreover that I was one of those young female professionals who was encouraged to inspire others. It has been a delightful journey, and British industry has some amazing professionals who work hard on improving this gender gap.

Since joining National Grid in 2019, not only am I working on the £1bn London Power Tunnels project to rewire the capital, but I also actively encourage other women to join engineering careers. This year’s theme for International Women’s Day is #ChooseToChallenge, a theme which I believe is very pertinent to the discussions I have. I’m constantly talking to young women about the importance of challenging stereotypes and picking a career that suits them, rather than something considered conventionally “feminine.” By pursuing these fields, we have challenged the notion of ‘male vs female careers’. STEM, which was once seen as inaccessible for women is slowly opening up, and I am proud to be involved in that process.

Staff at London Power Tunnels’ Hurst site raising their hand in support of International Women’s Day 2021. The sign reads: We #ChooseToImprove. #ChooseToWork. #ChooseToDivesify

Choosing to challenge gender stereotypes is not only important for advancing women’s empowerment, it is also a critical part of addressing the skills gap. Research carried out by Development Economics found that we need to increase the number of A level candidates for physics by 24 per cent and maths by 19 per cent to maintain the pipeline of qualified talent Britain needs. This means it is vital we attract those who would not normally consider a job within the sector, looking across the infinite aspects of diversity, not just the visible ones, at every stage of the career journey.

At National Grid I’m currently working with MyKindaFuture, a STEM outreach programme with schools across South London to address the STEM skills gap. To date, we have been able to reach out to 11,000 pupils directly and inspire them to consider the possibilities of a STEM career. This is only the beginning, and we plan to reach over 100,000 students in total. This work is vital, as the energy sector alone needs to fill 400,000 new jobs if we’re to transition to a net zero economy! It’s incredibly rewarding to speak directly to students from underrepresented groups, as their involvement will form a key part of the UK’s future. Importantly, this work has continued throughout Covid-19 virtually, proving that not even a pandemic can stop progress.

As I reflect upon the #ChooseToChallenge theme for this year’s International Women’s Day I realise how women in engineering do this daily, simply by doing their job. If we are to continue increasing gender diversity in the sector, we must actively inspire others to #ChooseToChallenge gender bias and all forms of discrimination in STEM. We’ve already come so far and a diverse workforce benefits everyone, I look forward to continually challenging gender stereotypes in my own career and more widely in STEM and engineering.

Anastasia Salemi, Project Manager, London Power Tunnels, National Grid