Women are still hugely under-represented in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) careers. Only 22% of the UK STEM workforce is made up of women according to a 2018 study. In Engineering specifically, the stats are worse: only 12% of all professional engineers are women.
Here at Cambridge Design Partnership, the company is taking active steps to improve the situation. “Our aim is to redress the balance and encourage as much diversity in our workforce as possible,” says Matt Schumann, Mechanical Engineer and Partner at CDP.
With International Women in Engineering Day falling on June 23rd 2019, we thought this was a good moment for some of CDP’s female staffers to talk over their careers so far and share their experience of working at CDP.
Round the table: Jessica Carroll, Mechanical Engineer; Jeanette Milbourn, Senior Regulatory expert; Miranda Dobson, year in industry student; Helen Simons, Quality Specialist; Caroline Zakrzewski, Drug Delivery Devices Scientist, Amy Livingstone; Electronics Engineer.
Have you faced any gender-specific challenges working in the STEM industries?
Helen: My course at Durham University 1998 – 2002, had 126 students of which 15 were women but I didn’t find this to be a problem. I first encountered real difficulties in my first graduate job, in the drawing office of a small manufacturing firm. I arrived to find I was the only women in the company in a technical role and I was more qualified than my boss. The guys on the shop floor were really encouraging but the managers didn’t support me at all.
Jess: For all three of my university internships and also my first job after university in 2017, I was the only female engineer. I’ve not had major problems, but I have noticed a series of seemingly insignificant comments like, ‘You’re a girl, you can draw’ and being called ‘motherly’ for being caring towards others. I’ve had to ignore it, for my own sanity.
Caroline: The gender bias regarding how women in science are perceived has certainly lessened, but male opinion is frequently seen as of more value. Look at any technical conference – one I attended recently had less than 20% female representation in its speaker and panel roles.
I was once at a high-level project meeting where the female team members were justified by a male colleague because “we get really nice cakes at the team meetings”. The females in question were the technical lead, quality lead and project co-ordinator. We made him bake the cakes for the following month’s meeting.
Miranda: I’m working at CDP on my gap year before going to university. Throughout my schooling there has been a distinct lack of participation from my female peers in STEM based activities. I have been the only girl in STEM groups for a long time, from the engineering club at school when I was nine to my Further Maths and Physics class at A level. Personally, I have got used to being outnumbered by male peers, but it could be off-putting for others looking to join in.
What problems have you had with being a woman in STEM employment?
Caroline: When I worked in a lab or cleanroom I was consistently hampered by oversized lab coats and huge gloves that restricted my dexterity. The design of equipment as ‘one size fits all’ usually means ‘one size fits a large man’.
Jeanette: When I had children (my first child was born in 1992) – part-time employment was almost impossible to get. So that is when I went freelance. I am now working part-time at CDP which is a perfect balance for me of interesting work while leaving time for my other interests.
How have you found CDP as a workplace?
Helen: I think CDP is pretty accommodating and flexible about working patterns which helps keep women in STEM. In a previous company the MD hated part-time workers and made them change all their contracts. This resulted in the majority of technical women leaving the company because they were the ones who needed part time working to deal with childcare. CDP has also been really good at giving opportunities to female Year In Industry students, which helps get them on the right path from the start.
Amy: At CDP the general level of support is so good that I don’t feel I need any extra. My appraiser is very supportive of additional training and I’m part of a new mentoring scheme, so I now have even more guidance in my career.
Who was your female STEM role model growing up?
Jeanette: My mother was a biology teacher and I was always encouraged to pursue what I wanted to do.
Helen: I guess I grew up with Carol Vorderman on TV which helped a bit. I mainly went into STEM because my dad was an engineer. I visited his work and understood what it was to be an engineer.
Amy: Only if Artemis Fowl counts!
Jess: There wasn’t anyone female I could look up to when I was thinking of this sort of career. One way to inspire the next generation is to be the role model you wish you had – and that’s what I’d like to do here at CDP.
Do you believe that women bring any extra contribution to STEM companies?
Jess: One of the problematic issues in the technology industry is gender-blindness. When technology is designed by an all-male team, considerations towards how women may use that tech may never be discussed, not out of maliciousness but rather ignorance. Having a diverse team, not just for gender, but race and disability, means that whole groups of people are not forgotten in design considerations.
Caroline: Even recent history has shown that designing for the ‘average white man’ can treat women as outliers – Apple created what they called the ‘world’s best workplace’ but omitted to include childcare facilities. FitBit came up with an app that tracks all manner of biometric exercise data but forgot to allow women to track their menstrual cycle.
Jeanette: Women often contribute valuable ‘soft skills’ such as being more of a team player and better listening skills. And, dare I say, not so many of the big egos that get in the way sometimes!
How do you view the future of women in STEM?
Jess: Young women and girls should be encouraged to study/work in STEM because they already have natural drive and curiosity. They just need the confidence to pursue it.
Miranda: I’ve always felt I have to work harder and perform better than my male counterparts to be seen as equal to them and to break down assumptions of my inferiority. I don’t know how effective positive discrimination is but I am optimistic that views on women in STEM are changing due to the likes of Harvard’s Dr Katie Bouman, who worked on capturing the first ever image of a black hole. Overall, I’m optimistic that, as my career develops, the gender imbalance in STEM will become less and less of an issue.
Redressing the balance
Here’s what CDP is doing now to encourage women to consider STEM careers;
• CDP actively supports female Year in Industry candidates.
• CDP female staff visit local primary schools to promote Engineering as a career open to all.
• CDP has signed up to the national Industrial Cadets scheme for all students aged 9-21.
• Flexible working is available to staff.
• Female CDP staffers act as role models for Industrial Cadets and Year in Industry students.