The recent ‘Women in Engineering Day’ on June 23rd has led me to reflect on my journey and how I ended up completing an engineering degree; from my first steps with science subjects, my choice to even do an engineering degree and now on the other side of completing said degree (I still struggle to believe I’ve been a student for the past 5 years).
Unlike the stereotypes painted about the subject in pop culture, me and maths got along well together. Something about it clicked in my head and it just made sense to me. My mum would tell you that it was down to learning to play a musical instrument and sticking with it for 10 years before the intensity of Year 13 led to me and my guitar parting ways.
Whatever the reason, maths was one of the subjects at school that I didn’t mind putting in the effort for; I liked being challenged because I knew that with some work I could get to the answer. That feeling of wrestling with something and having an ‘aha!’ moment has probably been a driver to choices that have led to my family and friends looking at me in wide-eyed shock and worry (doing 4 A-levels in Year 13 alongside an EPQ was not my brightest moment).
Closely following maths was chemistry, again it was just something about the subject that clicked. I think it’s really important to say that although these two subjects ‘clicked’ I did have to put a tremendous amount of work into them. I remember watching videos of people who wanted to do engineering and thinking they were geniuses.
There is nobody who does any STEM subject who gets away with not doing any work, if you're led to believe a STEM career isn’t for you because of how hard you have to work at it - believe me, every STEM graduate knows the blood, sweat and tears needed to complete the work. It’s just the more you work at it the easier things become and then you build on what you know and even that will require more work to grasp and fully comprehend it.
Springboard to an engineering degree
The end of Year 11 led to me looking at university degrees, I needed to choose my A-levels and I knew that I needed to make sure I made the best choices to get me into a degree I would like. There are various pathways into engineering such as taking an apprenticeship, however I knew that I would like to go to university and try it through that route.
I was incredibly fortunate to have a maths teacher in Year 12 who actively rooted for me to apply for engineering. Once an industrial engineer herself, she was one of my biggest supporters closely tied with my chemistry teacher who genuinely believed that I could accomplish the grades I was striving for and just believed in me.
I can’t take for granted what having those teachers in my life did in terms of opening up my thoughts about an engineering degree. Both teachers had careers in STEM one a previous industrial engineer and the other a doctor of chemistry. They knew what was possible and encouraged me through the process.
The importance of diversity
Numerous studies completed showing the impact of diversity on team performance. It can’t be denied that team diversity leads to more innovative solutions by having individuals who have a range of experiences and views. I had heard about random statistics of girls in STEM subjects, but the reality of it didn’t fully hit me till I realised I was the only girl taking physics in Year 13.
Navigating spaces in university and within the workplace with bigger gender disparities can be challenging. I have to be honest, my faith has been the biggest bed rock in facing these challenges and they’ve presented opportunities for me to have better trust in God.
It’s really important to plug into communities such as the Women's Engineering Society (WES) and other such groups for different industries. They are particularly invaluable for getting in contact with people who have been in these industries for significant periods of time. They give great advice and give an honest perspective on being a woman in male-dominated spaces.
Also, remember that creating an inclusive environment is the responsibility of everyone and it’s not your responsibility alone to make workplaces more diverse. When considering jobs, look at their workforce, during interviews ask questions about diversity and how they are encouraging it both within your team and across the corporation. This gives you a great idea about the culture you would be working in. I used to think I couldn’t be too picky but given how much time we spend at work, it’s always best to vet your options to make sure you are making the best step you can moving forward.
5 years later... Would I do it again?
Absolutely! One thing I hadn’t realised was that my degree wasn’t necessarily about making me into an engineer - industry and the knowledge I’ve learnt will do that. But my degree has taught me how to think like an engineer and that is invaluable.
The breadth of chemical engineering has meant I have learnt about everything from fluid mechanics to environmental law and project management. I’ve learnt how to view problems, how to break them down and solve them. And that is essential for wherever you go, be that industry or any area of life.
I’ve gotten to complete research abroad and learnt how wind turbine blades are made while on placement. These experiences have been unique for me and I don’t think I could have done them anywhere else. If you're considering doing engineering, reach out to people and find out what they think of it, talk to people studying, working and just ask people about their experiences.
Going for it might feel unnerving depending on your circumstance but I really want to encourage you to give yourself the permission to do something you might not have thought was for you or possibly what you were capable of. The paths on the other side of those doors are always the most exciting to walk down.