Sarah Chapman is a technical leader at global science company 3M, board member at Farnborough College of Technology and a passionate STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) ambassador. Here she shares a little of her inspirations.

My key role at 3M is Application Engineering Manager, but I also chair the EMEA Technical Women’s Forum and have a 20% role as spokesperson and STEM Champion for 3M’s North Europe region.

As someone who has been in a minority my entire career, I really want to share my story and encourage other people who may not see themselves in STEM, so last year I did a TEDx talk.

Did you ever sit down and plan your career? 

I did plan a career – although not this one – ballet was my thing. Everyone said I was a natural dancer, but no-one ever said I was a natural scientist or engineer. Injury and an inspirational teacher led me to a change in direction to sciences. Realising that I preferred computers to laboratories, I was initially worried I would not be able to find a science job that did not involve a lab coat – how wrong I was – STEM subjects can lead to a huge variety of fascinating, rewarding jobs.

I think it’s more important to know what you love and what you are not interested in, rather than have a detailed plan. Roles, disciplines, and markets will always change – being adaptable, developing transferable skills and always learning is the key.  I have held a variety of technical roles including technical service engineer, regulatory specialist, and project manager, most of them only became apparent to me as I applied for them!

I passionately believe that STEM skills can be an alternative way to follow a passion – for example, if you love music, look at the tech jobs industry, for example, sound engineer, data analysis, studio technician…

What career challenges have you faced in your career and how did you overcome them?

Like many people, I have often felt Imposter Syndrome (not believing that your success is deserved or has been legitimately achieved) especially when I have moved into a very different role or market.

#IamRemarkable is an initiative from Google that helps people understand the cultural and gender modesty norms that make it hard for people to talk about their achievements and can hold people, especially those from underrepresented groups back. As a manager, I see so many technical people working super hard and expecting that their accomplishments will speak for themselves, but I have learnt that visibility, sponsorship and profile are critical to advancement. Now as an #IamRemarkable facilitator, I help others overcome limiting beliefs like Imposter Syndrome and learn to talk confidently about their achievements – collectively we can challenge the social norms and better showcase the amazing work that women in tech are doing.

What has been your biggest career achievement to date?

I project managed the design and build of 3M’s multi-million-pound customer innovation centre in Bracknell. There were some big imposter feelings because I didn’t have any project management qualifications…. but I did have a passion for technical communication, storytelling and innovation – so on reflection I can see now why I got the assignment and am so pleased I pushed myself out of my comfort zone.  You can learn project management tools and, if you have a good network and strong motivation, you can gain the knowledge you need rapidly. Since opening, the customer innovation centre has welcomed over 20,000 visitors and always delivers “wow” moments whether that is for customers or local school students – I am proud of that.

What one thing do you believe has been a major factor in you achieving success?

Adaptability and a belief that, with determination, learning, practice and good collaboration, you can master even those things that appear not to come naturally. A growth mindset allows you to say yes to different opportunities and has enabled me to squiggle my way along a hugely rewarding career in STEM.

Although I am often the only women on the call or the only scientist in a group of engineers, I see that as a strength. I can bring a unique perspective and ask interesting questions. I am creative, curious and collaborative and those attributes are especially important in tech and innovation.

Research shows diversity drives innovation and, if we are to tackle the world’s most challenging problems, and solve them for the many, not just the few, we need all the ideas and perspectives we can get.

What top tips would you give to an individual who is trying to excel in their career in technology? 

Anticipate a need or problem within your organisation then use your network, skills and expertise to find a way to solve or improve it. Use it as a focal point and motivation to learn new skills, try new tools and reach out to new people. Then, share your ideas widely – not only will you learn a lot and potentially help your organisation to overcome an issue, but it may even help you to get your next job, secure a sponsor or get a promotion.

What barriers still exist for women in tech and how can we overcome them?

The latest 3M State of Science Index research shows that in the UK 88% of people believe women are a source of untapped STEM potential and yet, women are still underrepresented in STEM, especially in some of the fastest growing tech roles such as DevOps and cloud computing technology.

The reasons for this are complex, but the barriers for women and girls going into STEM include outdated stereotypes, lack of visible and relatable role models, and access to, and affordability of, STEM education. Within the industry, the WeAreTechWomen – Barriers for Women in Tech Report 2022 found that “mentorship was highly attributed to aid career progression however, sponsorship opportunities appear to be lacking, with only one in five stating they have access to sponsorship programmes.” It also found that only a third of survey respondents felt that processes and systems were in place to prepare them for promotion.

To tackle this head on, we need to improve support and retention in the workplace, but also address the issue before it gets to this stage, so that girls are encouraged in STEM education, have visible, relatable role models and are taught about the wealth of career opportunities in STEM.

Personally, I believe that everyone can help to make STEM relatable and in my TEDx talk, I share three ways that we can all help to shine a light on STEM through stories, stars, and streetlights.

What do you think companies can do to support and progress the careers of women in tech?

There are some notable examples of how companies are supporting and progressing women working in technology, such as allyship training, truly flexible working and career development resources. These efforts need to move from best practice to normal practice to ensure that the industry is inclusive and attractive to underrepresented groups.

3M’s EMEA Technical Women’s Leadership Forum runs an annual mentoring scheme, facilitates Lean-In circles, has delivered over 500 #IamRemarkable workshops and recently launched a podcast series featuring informal interviews with technical women from our community.

We know that diversity in our labs and our workplaces, with all the different perspectives and experiences that it brings, leads to better solutions. Therefore, one of our key areas of science advocacy is bridging the gap between education and employment. We aim to showcase the breadth and depth of STEM opportunities through programmes such as our strategic partnership with the British Science Association and raise the profile of relatable role models, for example through our sponsorship of the WeAreTheCity Rising Stars Science & Engineering category.

There is only around 17% of women working in tech and around 21% for STEM. How do we accelerate the pace of change for women in the industry? 

I would ideally make tech relatable from education to employment.

In textbooks, fascinating stories from real, relatable role models would show how maths and science are applied to life. In companies, spotlights would shine on all the relatable role models who smash the stereotypes, bust the myths and break the barriers. In the media, diverse tech for good stories would be unmissable so that everyone could see how a career in tech can be fulfilling and fascinating, whatever their background and interests. Within underrepresented groups, anyone who felt alone in their field would magically be matched to a relatable mentor and potential sponsor. In our heads, limiting beliefs would be banished. In homes and classrooms, every child would have the chance to work on a STEM project of their choosing with a relatable STEM ambassador. Is it too much to ask for the magic dust to make high-quality, affordable childcare accessible to everyone too?

What resources do you recommend for women working in tech?

The events and content from WeAreTheCity and WeAreTechWomen have some great resources including the She Talks Tech podcast.  A book that I think everyone should read is Invisible Women by Caroline Criado Perez, and the next one on my reading list is She’s In CTRL by Anne-Marie Imafidon. I also like the squiggly careers series and love all of Matthew Syed’s books.