female scientist looking at microscope slide, women in STEM

Encouraging women in STEM: What can leaders do?

female scientist looking at microscope slide, women in STEM

Article provided by Ewa Ambrosius, Associate Engineer, Perega

I recently read an article in the FT about the book Confidence Culture by Shani Orgad and Rosalind Gill, which explores how some organisations excuse the lack of women making significant career progression, by turning the mirror back on women themselves, citing low self-esteem and imposter syndrome.

Rather than engage in any meaningful introspection, this view means companies can continue operations as usual, undervaluing women and reinforcing inequality. The article references a number of other authors who write about confidence at work, including one who notes a tendency for leaders to mistake the trait for competence.

It got me thinking about the ongoing challenges STEM companies and leaders have trying to recruit more women, and the way that, as they progress through secondary school, girls become increasingly less likely to consider a career in engineering. I found myself asking the question: do leaders in schools and workplaces unintentionally discourage girls and women from pursuing STEM subjects, and jobs, by projecting their assumptions about what competence and enthusiasm should look like?

Uncivil engineering

My university experience was a wake-up call to blatantly sexist attitudes towards women in engineering. While the course itself had a good proportion of women (40% approx.), the lecturers were all men with outdated, traditional views. Alongside generally less support, we had to put up with jokes about how we, as women, wouldn’t finish the course. I can tell you, it required a thick skin to put up with, and complete, the five-year master degree course.

This was a stark contrast to high school, where I had the support of fantastic teachers who opened our eyes to a wide range of subjects and possibilities, regardless of our gender. An environment where we weren’t discouraged from anything.

While STEM outreach, such as careers activities, makes a demonstrable, positive difference to young people’s interest in engineering, I wonder what impact it would have if teachers and business leaders took the time to reflect on their own behaviours and interactions, and how they might be influencing the interests and success of those around them.

Leaders, over to you

With that in mind, here are a few steps leaders can take to encourage girls and women in STEM:

  • Challenge your assumptions about what competence and interest look like

Don’t fall into the trap of confusing confidence with competence. Look for other indicators of a creative, engineering-led mind and find moments to celebrate these. Is a student good at thinking outside the box, proving themselves, representing problems and solutions visually? Just because they don’t shout about it, doesn’t mean they aren’t talented or interested. Sometimes it’s the quiet student at the back of a classroom who never puts up their hand who is absorbing the most, eager to learn more. Unless teachers actively find ways to engage with them, there’s a good chance that interest will wane.

The same goes in the workplace. Leaders should consider different ways of enabling employee contributions. Meetings, whether online or in person, can unintentionally silence some voices. Is there a way to get feedback over email, or in smaller or one-to-one discussions?

  • Take an active, holistic approach to assessment and appraisals

Despite a widespread understanding that it’s not best practice, assessment methods in schools, and even the workplace, continue to be relatively limited and, subsequently, exclusionary.

While there are increasingly more pathways for students at college which assess coursework rather than exam performance, there is little variety in earlier Key Stages. I believe many STEM teachers would uncover hidden interests and abilities if they broadened their assessment toolkit to appeal to more learning types.

At work, managers should seek to paint a fuller picture when undertaking employee appraisals. This might mean: collecting client or customer feedback, making time for one-to-one discussions with employees for performance analysis, and creating regular opportunities for immediate feedback, as opposed to annual or biannual meetings.

  • Make small changes with the potential for big differences

The pandemic fast forwarded the shift towards remote and hybrid working, putting the spotlight on the ways in which flexible working can improve female progression and participation at work. Offering flexible start and finish times and compressed hours, a range of options for social or training events and adopting asynchronous meetings can help support not just women, but all employees with their personal responsibilities and mental wellbeing. However, flexible and hybrid working should be implemented carefully, with a plan to mitigate potential issues such as proximity bias.

While there’s less opportunity and demand to offer similar flexibility in schools, STEM teachers can consider flexibility around when extracurricular activities are offered. If after school activities have low female attendance, try rescheduling to before school or during lunchtime. During lessons, take a structured approach to group activities, strategically assigning responsibilities to ensure boys and girls alike have the chance to try different roles.

Career in STEM

A career in STEM: It may surprise you

Career in STEMIf the past few years are anything to go by, I’ve been very successful in what is traditionally a male-dominated industry.

Along with gaining my chartership as an engineer, I was shortlisted for two awards for my professional review submission. I also had the privilege to lead the structural design on the quickest hospital project ever completed for the NHS, which was the largest project to date for engineering consultancy Perega.

I’ve been a structural engineer for 15 years and currently hold an Associate role. While I love my work and knowing that it makes a difference in people’s lives, I wouldn’t describe my path into engineering as an obvious or smooth one.

Expect the unexpected

As a high school student in Poland, I hadn’t even considered going into engineering. My plan was to study architecture. I did the required preparation and drawing courses, but on the date of the university entrance exam, I was in hospital. While I was offered another date, it was for a civil and structural engineering course. University is free in Poland and it was something to do in the year before I could take the exam I really wanted, so I signed up. Six months in, I realised how interesting engineering is. I never looked back.

I was fortunate to go to a high school with fantastic teachers who encouraged us and opened our eyes to many different careers, regardless of our gender. This was exceptional for the time, which I came to realise upon starting university. Around 40% of the whole year were women, but the vast majority of lecturers were men with a very traditional perspective. As a result, we had a harder time and less support than our male peers, and at times were told that we wouldn’t finish the course so there wasn’t much point in helping us. In response, we developed a thicker skin.

A lot of work has been done in recent years to increase diversity in construction. When I finished my degree, that wasn’t yet the case. My first job out of university was on site. Out of 120 people, I was the only woman. While I had to deal with workers who weren’t used to seeing women on site along with the occasional joke, I think it helped me build more resilience at a crucial time in my career.

Top tips

There are a number of factors that helped motivate me throughout my career. The first, and one of the most important, of these was having a mentor. It doesn’t matter where you are in your career, having someone who will support you and who you can learn from is crucial. When I started my first job after university, my site manager helped me get through the difficult days and build up my confidence, offering advice on how to gain my colleagues’ trust. Even more recently, having a mentor was important as I worked towards gaining chartered status. As I balanced my chartership work with my personal life and responsibilities as an associate, there were times I thought I couldn’t do it. Having someone in my corner to encourage, push and help me along the way made a world of difference.

There is so much to be learned not only from mentors, but from your colleagues as well. Once I’d settled in at my first job, I started to talk with the other people on site, whether it was a bricklayer, a foreman or a painter. Not only did I gain insight into their specialisms, once they saw my enthusiasm and willingness to learn, they started to appreciate me as well. By working on site and talking to everyone there, I had an edge once I moved into a design office because I could appreciate the importance of buildability in the design process.

I’ve met quite a few engineers who graduated without ever going to a site. They can’t see in their heads what they’re designing. So, get out of the office. Whether you’re an engineer, an architect or anyone else behind the design of a project, go see the sites where it gets built.

Whatever career you choose or path you pursue, the final goal can seem impossible and the challenges along the way insurmountable. For me, it helped to prioritise and plan. When I was becoming chartered, I drew up a plan, identifying what needs doing, breaking tasks down into manageable chunks and setting small deadlines for myself. When you’re able to cross items off a list, you can see progress, giving you the encouragement to keep going.

Above all else, don’t be scared. If a career in STEM is what really interests you, push for it. You may not know right away exactly what you want to do, and that’s alright. If you enjoy science or maths, find something you can do with it – you may end up surprising yourself.

Ewa AmbrosiusAbout the author

Ewa Ambrosius is an associate in the London office of Perega (formerly Thomasons Ltd). She holds a masters in civil and structural engineering, designing structures for education, housing and healthcare, including the Chase Farm Hospital.