INWED ’22 profile: Challenging and changing perceptions of women in STEM

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Women represent around 16 per cent of the workforce in engineering and leadership throughout all facets of the industry – especially in education – will help increase female representation, says Wan Yung Kong, Senior Systems Engineer at Thales.

When I first told my family, many of whom worked in STEM, that I wanted to study engineering, there was some initial reluctance. When my father and brother studied engineering at university, female representation was extremely low, to the point where my father could not remember if a woman had even been on his course.

Maths and physics came naturally to me at school and I developed a keen interest in how everyday things worked. But engineering was and still is perceived as a male-dominated industry. This assumption led to natural concerns that working within this industry culture could prove to be difficult. 

This was my first introduction to industry bias and the realisation that this was the reality for women who choose to study and eventually work in STEM.

However, I was determined to study engineering and my family was a great support throughout my time at university. After completing my Masters in Electrical and Electronic Engineering, I joined Thales as part of their graduate programme.

At the start of my career, I was lucky enough to join and be surrounded by fantastic colleagues at the ground transportation systems (GTS) division who helped mentor and guide me. This instilled a similar drive in me to do the same when I became a functional team lead.

Their guidance demonstrated the importance of internal industry leadership to me, especially when it came to representation. I tried to mirror this example as I progressed through my career, encouraging the development of junior team members so they could feel empowered in the same way that I was when I first began.

While this approach has helped develop the working culture at Thales and indeed many other STEM firms, more needs to be done at a broader level. For me and for many other women, the answer has always been obvious – education.

Find a good mentor and be a good mentor to fellow engineers

During my earlier school years, one thing that became clear was the school’s misunderstanding of engineering as a profession.

The assumption that an engineer is someone in a hard-hat and high-vis on a build site is probably true for a small amount of real-world engineers, but is a perfect example of how simple misconceptions permeate into society’s wider interpretation of the industry.

Misunderstandings like this undermine the sheer scale and diversity of engineering as a profession, which can range from civil to chemical and in my case, electrical & electronic. Even with electrical & electronic engineering, there are a huge variety of career paths, from power distribution engineering to telecommunications to mechatronics.

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This has unfortunately led to significant problems for the perception of STEM at early education levels, and has undoubtedly impacted the rate of engineering enrolment for women – who are led to believe that it’s a one-dimensional, male-oriented workplace. 

Ultimately, breaking this stigma is what’s needed. 

We can revise these norms by providing opportunities for mentorships and streamlined apprenticeships, promoting STEM advocacy groups and encouraging academic leadership. This will not only make engineering more inclusive for women, but to all those who may also face stigma such as neurodiverse students.

It’s important to remember that most change is generational. It would be unreasonable to expect a drastic shift in five years’ time, but in 25 years, with the proper educational adjustments – real progress is on the table.

As engineers, we’re expected to spot problems, identify the change needed and provide the solution. Challenging and changing the perceptions of women in STEM is simply an extension of what we’re trained to do.

For the young female engineers who have recently started their careers and will still face certain challenges in the industry, I have some advice:  Find a good mentor and be a good mentor to fellow engineers. Back yourself and your abilities and create the work culture you want with like-minded colleagues.

Wan Yung Kong, Senior Systems Engineer at Thales