Comment: The value of mentoring for aspiring female engineers

3 min read

The number of girls interested in STEM almost doubles from 26 per cent to 41 per cent, when they have sight of an industry role model, says Kate Brydon, MEng Civil and Architectural Engineering.

Growing up in a small town in Cornwall, I had always been interested in maths and the science behind designing, planning and construction, but I had very little exposure to engineering. Most people I spoke to thought that engineering was simply about building roads and roundabouts, but I was curious to find out more and delve deeper.

There were many myths and misconceptions at school around science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) jobs, which certainly influenced the gender split amongst my peers as we progressed through secondary education. Indeed, as the only girl in my A-level Physics and Further Maths classes, I couldn’t help but feel this ratio might be different if we had greater understanding and awareness of STEM subjects and careers earlier in our education journey.

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Engineering is a famously broad industry, from astronauts and artificial intelligence technicians through to disaster recovery and forensic engineers. Although this scope is part of the excitement, at 17-years-old it can be daunting to narrow your options without industry insights or guidance. To help me gain some practical insights, my science teacher introduced me to the Arkwright Engineering Scholarship. Led by education charity, The Smallpeice Trust, the two-year programme provides young people with one-to-one mentoring with a professional engineer, exclusive events hosted by industry experts, and financial support for engineering projects or resources.

The benefits of networking and mentoring for young women

Living in a rural community, I was quite isolated in terms of access to industry contacts and practical work experience, which I needed in order to meet people working in engineering, learn about their career journeys and discover the daily realities of life as a qualified engineer. As part of the scholarship journey, I was sponsored by Morris Lubricants, a chemical engineering company based in Shrewsbury who provided me with a brilliant mentor. Throughout the programme, I was able to go on site visits, learning about manufacturing and distribution processes in the industry. My mentor helped me to navigate the different chemical engineering possibilities and determine the precise subject areas which interested me.

Through the process I discovered the value of mentoring as a career development tool, particularly for women embarking on careers in traditionally male dominated sectors such as STEM. Mentors can be key role models as they support you with industry-specific knowledge, guidance and insights from their personal experiences, which can all help to build confidence and ownership over your career journey. This is particularly important when we consider how the number of girls interested in STEM almost doubles from 26 per cent to 41 per cent, when they have sight of an industry role model.

mentoring
Photo: Harry Parvin

I was also lucky to be introduced to key networking contacts through my sponsor company, which is another useful way to explore different industry sectors and specialisms. I soon realised that I was most drawn to the design elements of engineering, leading me to discover my true passion in civil engineering. Hands-on work experience and mentoring certainly brought clarity and helped me to solidify my career choice in engineering, leading me to study Civil Engineering at Bath University. More recently, I have completed my Masters degree in Civil and Architectural Engineering and embarked on a graduate role at a construction firm.

Starting off on the right foot with STEM

Working in a construction company in London, I love getting to walk through the city and see the buildings we have designed and built from scratch. My company is very progressive in its approach to inclusivity and diversity, yet still less than a quarter of the workforce is female. While my company is actively trying to address this gender imbalance and employ more women, the problem starts much earlier down the track in education.

Engineering is a dynamic mix of disciplines, from biology and medicine to arts and design and aeronautics, however this is not taught enough at schools. Getting to the root of the problem and embedding engineering into the curriculum will help to inspire more young people, particularly girls and other underrepresented audiences, to explore their potential in STEM. I know that I would have benefited from having more female STEM role models speaking at my school and sharing their experiences, as this is a great way to raise career aspirations and build confidence in young girls. Providing more real-world learning and mentoring opportunities in schools can challenge misconceptions and bridge the knowledge gaps from classroom to lecture hall and the world of industry.

Teaching children about engineering from an early age is essential if we want to combat the stark percentage imbalance between men and women working in engineering and ensure that there is a diverse talent pipeline of aspiring female engineers.

For any young person considering a career in engineering, I thoroughly recommend exploring the vast range of engineering disciplines and career pathways available, as you won’t know what you’re passionate about until you try it!