Emma Nolan: My thoughts on being a woman in STEM

Posted on 5 Aug 2020
Photo of GM Apprenticeship Ambassador, Emma Nolan, smiling at the camera

My name is Emma Nolan and I’m a software engineering degree apprentice at Thales UK. I study a degree in digital and technology solutions (specialising in software engineering) at Manchester Metropolitan University. My apprenticeship is 4 years long and I am currently about to enter my third year of the programme.

The following is an account of my experience as a woman in the engineering/STEM/digital industry, and what I would tell someone considering this as a future career.

The Engineering UK 2018 report1 states that only 12.0% of engineers in the UK are women. And lower than that is the percentage of starts in engineering-related apprenticeships in England; with the 2019 figure-update to the report2 recording that only 8.8% of those who started an engineering-related apprenticeship in the 2017-2018 academic-year were female.

From the above, it’s clear that being a woman in the engineering/digital industry makes me a minority in my field. And whenever anyone is a minority in a situation they will have a variety of feelings and experiences.

To explain what I mean, think about how it feels to meet a friends or partners family for the first time. You feel a little out of place, a little uncomfortable maybe. They might make inside jokes or talk about situations that you aren’t aware of. But the more you visit that household and get to know that family, you settle in and make your place. Sometimes they’ll even start seeing you as another family member.

From my experience starting as a software apprentice, I’ve had these same sort of feelings. I felt anxious and out of place to begin with but have settled in over time. However, I believe there are some misconceptions on the encouragement of getting women into the field, and I think I outwardly have more struggles than the male apprentices I started with (now my friends) but these are things I will dig into.

I really do just want to make it clear that these are just my experiences, views and thoughts. But I hope it provides some interesting reading material and good advice for anyone considering joining the field, or even for anyone already in it.

One of my biggest struggles in the field is feeling like I’m inadequate or useless at times. Something to think about here is that as an apprentice, you are in training – especially for me starting an apprenticeship straight from college. I’m really in 4 years of training to set me up for my future. So in comparison to full-time employees, you will have less knowledge and experience, and that’s okay. But I sometimes feel considerably more inadequate in comparison to my male counterparts too.

From as young as 7, girls show less interest in a career in engineering. (The following statistics have been pulled from the Engineering UK Engineering Brand Monitor 2019 report3) 70% of boys aged 7-11 say they would like to become an engineer ‘a little’ or ‘very much’ whereas only 49% of girls say the same. And when moving upwards to 11-19 year olds, 62% of males said they would consider a career in engineering, in comparison to only 37% of females.

Why am I mentioning these statistics? I personally think that it’s more in the male nature to be interested and curious in how things work and to have a greater interest in technology and engineering, and these stats align with that thought. I personally do not feel technical in any way, or have much interest in the ins-and-outs of computers. I just enjoy programming, and it’s one of the reasons I didn’t want to study a full-time degree in computer science. I cannot of course speak on behalf of everyone; I just think the majority of men are more technical compared to the majority of women.

I think because I didn’t have the interest or curiosity as strongly as male friends have, they’ve built up a better knowledge of technology in general. They’ve messed around more with computers and learnt a lot more in their free time than I have. And their curiosity and interest has given them an advantage in their work in comparison to me who only did more programming activities in my free time.

Of course this doesn’t mean men don’t struggle and feel inadequate at times too, and there’s research on how men and women will differently handle and express these feelings. One of the chapters in Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus is titled “Men Go to Their Caves and Women Talk” and is all about how women want to talk about their issues and men want to stay quiet and work through them alone. I see this a lot in my friend group. I think this is something to bear in mind if you feel like you’re struggling often while the people around you never seem to at all – remember that they probably are.

If you do begin to feel inadequate or like a minority, remember that it’s actually your differences as a woman that help you to improve the company. On a list of statistics on the Women’s Engineering Society webpage4, they state that “companies are 15% more likely to perform better if they are gender diverse” – and that’s because your different mind-set from being a woman brings with it a new range of thoughts and ways of working. You are fully deserving of a place in the industry, and just because you are not the majority, or because you may lack experience or interest does not mean that you cannot one day perform as well as or better than male peers.

If there’s one thing you should take away from this blog, it’s that you need to be willing to learn and work hard and put the effort in.

With gender diversity being an advantage to work places, and with there are so few women in the industry, there are many schemes encouraging woman into engineering/STEM/digital. This is something I want to touch on because there are mixed views on these schemes.
When I first started my job, I was actually warned by someone to not get involved too heavily in women into engineering schemes or women’s only awards. Here’s the thing, a lot of men in the industry do not understand why there is a need for them to exist or haven’t experienced a need for them. And some people can be quite vocal about their disagreement towards the schemes and awards. I believe these people just need educating.

It is your choice of course whether or not you want to get involved in the schemes or in STEM work. But I would advise anyone that thinks it might interest them to give it a go. Not only are you doing something good for younger people and providing a better education of what you do, but you are also going to meet an amazing network of people and other women in the industry.

The scheme I’m involved in that educates girls about careers in the digital industry is Digital Herhttps://digitalher.co.uk/ but aside from that I also volunteer as an apprentice and STEM ambassador. I do these schemes because nothing like this existed just a few years ago when I was in school, and I think even as someone who was confident in studying computer science, they would’ve made an impact on my choices.

And now that I’m a part of the communities through these schemes they have a positive impact on me. They allow me to be able to share my experiences and have people relate which helps me to remember that I’m not alone and that even though I may be a minority in the field, I deserve to be in it as much as anyone else. Being a part of these communities gives me a sense of belonging within the industry that I think can be difficult to feel sometimes.

There are upsides and downsides to being a woman in the digital/engineering industry. But the downsides are manageable and will fade overtime as we educate those in the industry and as figures of women increase overtime. The communities that are around allow you to meet the most amazing people and will help you through the tougher times.

Despite the difficulties, I won’t be leaving the industry any time soon. The people I meet are amazing and incredibly smart and the communities that I get to be a part of are full of inspiring likeminded individuals that help me have a sense of belonging.

If you enjoy engineering or digital then that’s what matters. Do what you enjoy and take advantage of opportunities that are important to you.

References: 

  1. https://www.engineeringuk.com/media/156187/state-of-engineering-report-2018.pdf
  2. https://www.engineeringuk.com/media/156186/key-facts-figures-2019.pdf
  3. https://www.engineeringuk.com/media/196482/engineering-brand-monitor-ebm-2019-full-report_website.pdf
  4. https://www.wes.org.uk/content/wesstatistics
  5. https://www.theguardian.com/education/2015/mar/05/girls-lack-self-confidence-maths-science-oecd-school-engineering
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