Imagine a world without the internet or mobile phones – how would we function as individuals and businesses? If not for telecoms engineers, this imaginary world would be a reality. I’m privileged to have been part of the telecoms sector for over 30 years, Providing me with countless opportunities to make an impact through my research.

In fact, my love for STEM started at an early age. I was nine years old when I first read the biography of Polish-born physicist and chemist, Marie Curie. Her research into radioactivity was crucial in the development of X-rays that we use today. Inspired by her success and resilience in the face of opposition from male scientists in France, I realised that I also wanted to conduct research and become a university professor.

I held onto that childhood dream as I pursued a career in academia and STEM. Initially studying physics and working in the private sector before developing an interest in telecommunications. Across my years in education, I was driven by my interest and curiosity in changing the way the world works. The story of a woman making real change in another place at another time. For me, studying Marie Curie’s life made me realise that a career as a woman in STEM is both possible and rewarding.

My career wasn’t driven by a need to prove myself as a woman. It’s my genuine love of research that gets me out of bed every morning. The indescribable feeling of seeing new discoveries being made as a result of my research, leading to real commercial impact.

Following Marie Curie’s footsteps

That being said, I’ve faced a number of challenges throughout my career as a woman working in academia and industry.
Over my four years in the telecoms industry – moving from a graduate to chief engineer – I worked tirelessly to prove myself as a young, non-British, female engineer in a male-dominated environment. It was only when I worked on the design of the first optical transatlantic submarine network (TAT12), connecting the UK with the US and forming the backbone of what we call today’s ‘global internet’, that I realised I could achieve things with a profound global impact.

A career in academia requires a similar approach, working hard and with great commitment over a long period of time. No matter what your background or gender. Many young academics face this challenge at the onset of their career, expecting instant returns from their research proposals. I’d highly encourage anyone considering this path to seek out long-term career aspirations instead of immediate success. Having a mentor during this time, particularly for women, can also be invaluable in helping navigate challenges and celebrate successes.

Inspiring careers in STEM

In the past few years, I’ve seen more women developing successful and highly visible careers in telecoms. A key aspect of this has been having a supportive mentor and role model. I strongly believe that successful women in senior positions have a responsibility to nurture and encourage a pipeline of future female talent. In fact, one of my biggest career achievements to date has been mentoring PhD students. Seeing them complete their research and go on to hold key positions in businesses and academia, contributing to the international technical community.

I’m proud to have been part of their journey, but more intervention is needed at earlier stages of education. Schools, teachers and the government have a responsibility to encourage young girls to study STEM subjects. Help them realise just how amazing, and accessible, this profession can be. For me, the most fulfilling part of helping young people is nurturing their passion and watching them go on to make a difference on a global scale.

Diversifying the talent pool

Technology and connectivity underpin every aspect of our lives. Additionally, questions concerning energy consumption and the environment, inclusive and fair connectivity, as well as security, privacy and trust mean there is a duty to innovate responsibly for our digital futures – which makes the telecoms profession crucially important to the way we live and work.

Diversifying the talent pool to include women and people from all backgrounds is a key aspect of this. Something that the UK Telecoms Innovation Network (UKTIN) is looking to achieve through its work around talent and skills. In particular, the UKTIN Talent Advisory Group provides a platform for collaboration and action among the individuals and organisations working in the fields of telecoms, employment and training. It facilitates the exchange of information and expertise; fosters the creation of career opportunities in the sector; provides information on training and development opportunities for aspiring individuals; and enables and supports activity to rapidly address skills shortages and gaps.

With women making up only 3% of all telecoms engineers, the group is facilitating and establishing a much-needed national programme of activity. For example, by raising awareness of telecoms engineering roles and encouraging individuals. Including education leavers, career returners and switchers – to consider the potential of a career in telecoms.
We need more women and young people entering the telecoms sector to help challenge the perception of what an engineer looks like. We don’t just operate in a world filled with dark labs, lab coats and overalls – we solve real-world problems, travel the world, and make an impact on a global scale. With a career in STEM, you’ll see how your work touches every aspect of our lives. This is for the benefit of society and the economy.

About the author

Dimitra Simeonidou, Director of the Smart Internet Lab and Co-Director of Bristol Digital Futures Institute, University of Bristol and UKTIN Lead for UK Research Capability.

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