Women account for only 7% of the professional engineering workforce in the UK and an extra 87,000 graduate level engineers will be needed each year in the UK between now and 2020.
But, typically, women are lost to a potential career in engineering at the age of 16 years
BP’s chief scientist Angela Strank joined the organisation more than 30 years ago as a young geologist, while Rachel Fort is a graduate chemist who has been with BP for just two years.
Here, they share their thoughts with Scottish Energy News readers on a mutual passion for science and the challenge of encouraging young people to continue studying science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) subjects.
Rachel: Growing up, I was always interested in why and how things happened in the way that they did and understanding the deeper reasons. My mum trained as a food scientist, which is a really fascinating area at any age. She used to make sweets for a living which definitely helped! I went into chemistry because I liked bright colours and explosions. I don’t know how I didn’t end up in fireworks, but BP is pretty good, too.
Angela: I was always interested in natural sciences and as a young girl was often out in the garden getting muddy, looking for insects and interesting things in the soil, and looking up at the sky, wondering how the sun, clouds and rain formed. All of that intrigued me. My father was an engineer and an architect, which is a wonderful combination of science with creativity. He always said that he would support me in whatever I wanted to do. He inspired me to ask questions and discover more.
On science heroes
Rachel: I used to love the Horrible Science books. I think they are a good way to get kids involved; talking about gruesome things definitely makes them interesting. I remember UK television programmes such as The Really Wild Show and How2. These sorts of programmes help make science seem more cool, which is one of the problems we always have.
Angela: As a child, I watched a film about Marie Curie and asked a lot of questions afterwards. She made sacrifices to make huge scientific breakthroughs, from which we have all benefited, and she had a big impact on me. Like Rachel, the television was an enormous influence: David Attenborough, for instance – a great palaeontologist and scientist, with his breath-taking natural history programmes. I was also inspired by the astronauts and cosmonauts in the pioneering space exploration programmes and the first lunar landings – extraordinary frontier exploration. I wanted to be part of this exciting scientific world.
On science as a career
When I first joined BP, women weren’t allowed to work offshore due to the lack of dedicated accommodation. The first time I went offshore, I slept in the medical centre.
Throughout my BP career, though, I have never experienced discrimination. I’ve always been treated with huge respect and fairly. From a personal perspective, my interest in STEM subjects continued because I could see some exciting and different careers in science and engineering, especially in the expanding North Sea oil and gas industry at that time. All this, with an opportunity to travel the world, was something I really wanted to do during my career.
On whether women need particular qualities to achieve in STEM subjects
Rachel: To be a scientist you just need to be inquisitive, logical and thoughtful. I think those qualities are perhaps encouraged more in boys than they are in girls, but I don’t think that is because they are innately different. Every small child I have met has endless questions. It is just making sure they continue to ask them.
Angela: I could not have put that better myself. I would add that recently published research in the UK shows that stereotypes, perceptions and unconscious bias still perceive STEM subjects to be more ‘masculine’ and for ‘brainy boys’. This is just a long-standing perception of course, but it does influence career choices of girls at school age, even though girls often tend to do better in science subjects than boys at GCSE level.
On encouraging students to pursue STEM subjects
Rachel: I would encourage girls and boys to consider continuing their science studies because there are so many different things you can go into through STEM. It is not all hard equations, sitting in the laboratory and scribbling notes detached from the outside world. It is about getting involved in the world around you and affecting it.
Angela: We need to show young people all the opportunities and many career pathways that STEM subjects can offer students, as well as bringing all kinds of engineering to life in a way that resonates–it needs to be simple and compelling. Some young people are more interested in how water comes out of a tap or how their lipstick winds up the tube, but others are interested in how a refinery or hybrid car works. If we want to engage young people from an early age, then it has to be interesting to them personally.
Teachers, families, friends, business and industry all have an important role to play here. Science and technology help drive global economic growth and development, creating plentiful, diverse and well-remunerated career opportunities for STEM students. You can go into business, move across markets and sectors or stay deeply involved in engineering operations, or science and engineering research. It is a very enjoyable and rewarding career and, more importantly, it is great fun.