5 minute read
Opinion: Let’s teach the next generation that engineering careers are for everyone
There are companies like Inmarsat that are actively looking to hire women into engineering. A talented young woman, fresh out of school these days will have a lot more opportunity because she is still (unfortunately) a rarity and companies are fighting over the best candidates in order to better balance their ranks. It is no longer an issue of ‘breaking in’ to the business for those with good talent. But it takes a long time for this demand signal to make it upstream to the headwaters of supply, namely the middle years in school when people start thinking about what they are good at and what they like doing. Edwina Paisley, Director of Spacecraft Programmes at Inmarsat, discusses her career in aerospace engineering and the importance of encouraging girls to consider careers in engineering.
My route into engineering and space
Many people ask me why, and how, I decided to pursue a career in aerospace engineering. From a young age I always liked making, doing, and building things. Growing up in the Philippines, we had to make a lot for ourselves with what we had. As a child I enjoyed having to create something tangible, from basic materials, and this is a lot of what engineering is about.
Fast-forward to today, and I design and test complex products and at the moment this revolves around the most sophisticated satellites that Inmarsat has ever designed, developed and ordered. These are the Inmarsat-6 (I-6) satellites and the first is due to launch later this year.
One thing I love about working in space is that it is full of technical challenges. With a satellite launch, you’ve got one chance to do it right, so you must prepare to launch it well and for it to work perfectly, first time.
Encouraging young people to rethink the barriers to entry
While steps are being made to close the gender gap in engineering, I believe that more needs to be done to encourage more young women into engineering careers. We need to open young girls’ eyes to see how exciting and fulfilling a career like mine can be.
Unfortunately, there are often several perceived barriers to entry for young women considering an engineering career. Perhaps the biggest is a lack of confidence. In recent research by HP and the Fawcett Society, 25% of women polled said they didn’t study STEM subjects because they ‘didn’t think they could do it’. This is a real shame; we need to do more to build confidence early on in woman’s lives.
My advice to those interested in the field would be to rethink these perceived barriers. Who is creating these barriers? Are they created by you? Do you not think you can do it – and if not, why not? Do your family not think you can do it? Do your friends have different goals and ambitions?
None of this should stop you. If you really want to go and build planes, or develop spacecraft, then you can. The opportunities are everywhere, but you have to be assertive and grab them.
Despite numerous initiatives over the past 30 years, there has been little significant advance in the gender balance of the engineering sector. In the UK, only 24% of women make up the STEM workforce – this is even lower in the aerospace industry where women make up only 9% of all roles. As an industry, we still have work to do.
A large factor preventing gender diversity in the industry is gender bias associated with aerospace engineering – it’s still often seen as a ‘male’ job. But I believe that you can acknowledge gender bias without letting it cloud your own ambitions. Be the best engineer you can be and challenge the status quo.
The importance of role models
I remember sitting in a lecture, early on in my career, where there were only three women in a full auditorium. While this experience could have made me feel out of place, instead it made me really want to go and meet these women.
A study by Microsoft, of 11,500 girls and women across 12 countries, discovered that girls are much more likely to consider a STEM career if they have a visible role model.
Mentoring is a valuable way to give young women access to role models. Surprisingly, my best mentors have been those outside of my area (both male and female). External mentors can give you a broader perspective and help you to see the forest instead of the trees.
We’re definitely starting to see more women in senior, technical roles, and I hope these numbers will continue to grow. I work alongside several assertive and driven senior women at Inmarsat, who certainly aren’t wallflowers! We’re slowly but surely building a generation of strong female leaders in the industry, who will become role models for the next.
How businesses can help
Businesses can play a significant role in dismantling stereotypes and resetting the barriers to entry. One way to do so is by collaborating with schools and universities to create programs and activities that expose young girls to STEM career options. Inmarsat recently launched its ‘Passport Programme’ – a learning portal for students aged 14-17, offering career advice and information on satellite communications.
I also believe that the space industry especially needs to invest in next generation of ‘space geeks’ by actively giving opportunities that fuel excitement. I adore going to see the I-6 spacecraft. At Inmarsat, we’ve been asking: ‘what can we do to share this excitement with others?’. Pre-pandemic, we invited as many young people as possible to see the payload in development in Portsmouth, in order for them to experience first-hand what makes a career in space so rewarding.
Gender diversity in the workplace unlocks different perspectives, and new ideas, which in turn lead to better outcomes and results for businesses. To achieve this, we must teach the next generation that engineering is a career for anyone with the drive and commitment to succeed.