My route into engineering and space
As a child, I was always fascinated by how things worked. My grandfather was an engineer by trade; his curiosity about the world was infectious and first inspired my lifelong interest in engineering.
I now lead a strategy programme for aviation safety and air traffic management for Inmarsat – using satellite communications to modernise the world’s busiest airspaces and keep passengers and crew safe with next-generation technology.
What is unique about my role is that I am an intermediary between a technical team of engineers, and business-minded people. It involves customers and policymakers learning from us about the future possibilities of a digitised airspace, and what this means for businesses and society. The result at work is a rich and varied environment where no two days are the same. I also chair the Women in Inmarsat Network (WIN). Led by Inmarsat’s women for Inmarsat’s women, it aims to unleash the true potential of women at the company and expand their opportunities and well-being by providing a trusted community of support and expertise.
I am currently working with the European Space Agency – coincidentally, an organisation with which I worked right at the start of my career too – on a ground-breaking programme called Iris, which uses satellite communications to minimise flight delays, save fuel and reduce carbon emissions.
Breaking down barriers and stereotypes
Despite numerous campaigning initiatives, engineering remains a male dominated field. Only 24 per cent of women make up the UK STEM workforce, and in aerospace specifically, only nine per cent of roles are held by women.
This problem starts early on in life, often stemming from a lack of confidence amongst young women. A 2019 HP and the Fawcett Society study found that almost a quarter of women said they did not study STEM subjects because they did not think they could do it.
There is no doubt that engineering is a complex subject that requires years of study, but this should not serve as a barrier for one gender more than another. There is a need to let all young people know that technical careers are not only engaging and rewarding, but accessible too.
Retaining women in the workforce
The issue is not concentrated to attracting young female talent; the gender imbalance in engineering remains prominent in senior roles. We are slowly seeing more women entering senior positions, and I hope that will inspire others starting out in their careers – but we still have some way to go.
There is a particular challenge of retaining women who have children in the workforce – something that flexible working and advanced parenting policies could remedy. Recent research by the University of Michigan and the University of California San Diego estimated that 43 per cent of women leave full-time work in STEM roles after maternity leave.
Until recently, flexible working was extremely rare in engineering management positions. In 2017, only 11 per cent of engineering companies offered flexible working, which has clearly presented challenges for women who make up the vast majority of part-time roles in the wider workforce. Thankfully, Inmarsat offers choices to its workforce on how to combine effectively work and family life and it is great to see other companies doing the same.
The COVID-19 pandemic has reset many perceptions about working practices. With flexible working becoming more accepted in the workforce, I believe this shift may enable more women to continue pursuing engineering careers later in life.
As a mother of two, I am proof that it is possible to find a balance - but young women need to see that this is achievable. A lot of this comes down to visible role models, alongside the willingness of employers to adopt forward-thinking policies for working parents.
What can employers do?
Businesses have a duty to inspire young people about how exciting engineering careers can be. At Inmarsat, we have launched a new Passport Programme for 14–17-year-olds: a learning portal offering career advice on satellite communications and space careers.
It does not stop when talent enters the building; employers should tap into their leadership to nurture and retain female talent through mentoring programmes, alongside forward-thinking family policies and clear progression opportunities.
The benefits of nurturing a gender diverse workforce are clear. Not only will it help the engineering sector to address the current skills shortage, but it will ensure a varied pool of opinions and ideas which are critical to future innovation, growth and financial success.
Let us convince the next generation that engineering careers are for everyone – and reap the future rewards.
Sylvie Sureda Perez, senior director of Datalink Solutions, Inmarsat