INWED21: Female role models are worth their weight in gold

female talentThere is still a lot to be done to encourage more female talent to consider engineering and help them succeed, says Kirsty McDermott, Senior Engineer – Welding, National Grid.

When I started in engineering at the age of 16, I very rarely came across many other women. My career began as the first ever female apprentice to be employed alongside 200 men in a bus building factory. After some time at a steel fabrication factory, I joined National Grid with a determination to do a bigger picture job that made a difference – and now I’m a Senior Engineer in Welding, responsible for all the welding work on National Grid’s 7,500km of gas transmission pipelines in the UK.

Throughout my career so far, I can see there has been some progress made to attract more women and young girls to what is a really creative and fulfilling profession. However, with women still representing only 12% of UK engineers, there is still a lot to be done to encourage more female talent to consider engineering and help them succeed.

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We’ve got a 30 year skills gap and a huge portion of the female talent pool overlooking engineering – we need to take action now to address this.

Challenging stereotypes

In the early days of my career, there were a number of instances where being a woman in engineering felt like a challenge. I came across surprised faces that I was a young girl working in a very practical and male dominated profession. But those responses made me feel even more determined to challenge stereotypes and help other women do the same.

There is a shift happening slowly with organisations such as the Women’s Engineering Society tackling outdated perceptions and bringing together voices that can show why engineering is a great career for women. We’re also seeing more action from individual businesses which are taking steps to promote and celebrate women engineers within their workforce and increase engagement with schools too, to try and reach younger talent.

A good role model is invaluable

Highlighting female role models is critical to helping more women consider engineering as a potential career path. When you don’t see anyone to aspire to, it can make you wonder, do I fit? Is this for me? Role models can provide young women with someone to have meaningful career conversations with, who they can ask personal questions to and who can show them what success in the profession can look like. They can also demonstrate the vast range of roles that can fall under engineering and help challenge views that it is a career for men.

At National Grid, I started our Female Engineer of the Year awards as part of an International Women in Engineering event over three years ago. The awards shine a light on female engineers around the business to make sure we’re recognising all the great talent we have coming through. It’s been so rewarding; people have made friendships and formed new networks out of it, and we’re seeing a shift in culture and mindsets.

Building a female engineer network

The WeAreTheCity Rising Star Awards are another forum which helps celebrate and promote amazing people and roles models in different fields. This external awards programme offers great opportunities to get involved in new networks with other organisations – gender imbalance is an industry wide issue and by connecting with others in the sector, we have a stronger chance of tackling the problem.

Awards and networks are so important for showing women from all diverse groups and backgrounds – for example different racial and ethnic backgrounds, social backgrounds, ages, those with caring responsibilities and more – that they have the potential to join the energy sector. They can show that you don’t need a degree in engineering to consider it as a career route, and help highlight the real breadth of skills and talent the industry needs to help it successfully achieve its role in the net zero journey.

Developing talent

As momentum continues to build around securing a greener future, job roles will develop and evolve. There’s a lot of opportunity to develop internal talent and help people build a specialism by putting in place the right support mechanisms.

Take welding for example – it’s a highly skilled role that is pretty niche. It’s not easy to just study and learn the trade, so tailoring development plans for the skills we’ll need will be crucial and provide a chance to do this in a way that reaches female talent too.

Accelerating progress

Things are definitely progressing but there are still pockets of the industry where there is a serious gender imbalance. Change won’t happen overnight but at the same time, there are steps that can be taken to accelerate progress – amplifying the voices of visible role models, developing female engineering networks and increasing focus on internal female talent development, to name a few.

As an industry, we need to work together to leverage the success and experiences of the brilliant female engineers and role models that are emerging to show young girls, students, women, parents, teachers and the sector itself, that engineering is a career path with plenty of room for women.

International Women in Engineering Day – June 23 – is an awareness campaign to raise the profile of women in engineering and focuses attention on the amazing career opportunities available to girls in this exciting industry. It also celebrates the outstanding achievements of women engineers throughout the world. The event is organised by The Women’s Engineering Society.