Getting to the Heart of National Women in Engineering Day at Thales UK

young women in engineering

One of the primary reasons National Women in Engineering Day was instituted was to not only highlight the amazing work female engineers are already doing, but also to encourage young women to consider engineering and other STEM related careers as a possibility. While not every young woman will want to become an engineer or work in the sciences, there are so many that either do, but don’t feel confident in their ability to succeed, or worse, don’t even know it’s a possibility. This is why youth engagement is so important (for both young men and women); unless they know what is on offer there’s no way they can get involved.

As one of the leading engineering organisations in the world Thales fully recognises the need to grow a strong talent pool of engineers to take the reins when their current workforce step down, and this is why they run regular educational outreach events for local schools and colleges, to help inspire young people to consider careers in engineering. One such event supports National Women in Engineering Day, and I was fortunate to be invited along to see what the event entails and what the young people who attended got out of it – and I can already tell you now, it was a lot!

The event is run every year by Thales UK, engineered (pardon the pun) by Eve Maywood, Education Outreach Officer. This year activities were held at the Crawley and Glasgow sites, and female engineers from Templecombe attended a college in Yeovill to be part of an event there. As a result of their efforts, Eve believes Thales will have had the opportunity to interact with and inspire around 65-100 females aged 15-18, who are now beginning to think about what career path they’d like to follow; giving them real insight into the world of engineering, and showing what a diverse field it truly is.

Welcome to the World of Engineering

The event in Crawley began with an introduction by one of Crawley’s many talented female engineers, detailing her personal career path, and making it clear that there is no one way to succeed in engineering, and no one path to follow. This message was strongly supported by the speed networking activity that came next, where the students were given the chance to ask questions of seven female engineers all in different roles and stages in their career. But while no two job roles, paths to get there or educational backgrounds were the same between the engineers, one thing that was shared was their passion for what they do, and their commitment to helping other young women realise their potential too. The specific advice offered by each engineer differed depending on their role, but every one of them rounded off with the same message: figure out what you love to do, and find a way to do that, and don’t be afraid to try new things while you decide.

For many of the young women at the event who already had a clear idea of what they want to do, this advice helped solidify it. But others in the audience were not so sure, and it was wonderful to witness moments of inspiration as the day unfolded, about what they might like to focus on. One attendee who initially stated she’d like to teach engineering later discovered a different avenue she could pursue based on her interest in product design: “I didn’t know you could do product design engineering – that’s definitely something I’m going to look into”. The diversity of engineering can sometimes be what puts people off because they feel like they should know what they want to do before doing it, but as the speakers today demonstrated, it’s actually a very exciting prospect, and as one attendee commented: “engineering is actually a great route for people who are indecisive because you can do so many different things, and try different things until you find something that you know is right”.

Helping to showcase this in action, the young women attending were later offered an opportunity to take a tour of the facility, seeing examples of engineering in avionics, simulation, and communication. On a personal level being able to see all of the amazing things that engineers actually do on a day to day basis was really inspiring, and was a sentiment shared by many of the other young women on the tour: “it’s so cool to see what engineers actually do, I can’t believe how much is involved!”

One of the other themes that arose from the day is the on-going lack of communication about education options in engineering; the majority of the engineers who spoke had attended university in order to gain the qualifications needed to get into the field. But when asked for their views on apprenticeships, several of them commented that given the opportunity they likely would have chosen that route instead. It seems that for past generations university was the only option really discussed, and while the tide is gradually changing today, the comments from the students who attended imply it’s not changing fast enough: “I didn’t know there were so many options around how to get into engineering”; “we are told a bit about apprenticeships, but mostly the focus is on university”. Based on this feedback and multiple other comments from both students and teachers, it appears that the session focusing on the various routes into engineering was by far one of the most useful, and for many sparked a real ‘light bulb’ moment, especially for those who had raised concerns that maybe engineering wasn’t for them because they didn’t want to go to university.

Aware that this lack of confidence is a common issue for many young people when embarking on their career, the final session of the day was a talk from HR about the role of confidence and what skills young people actually need to succeed at interviews and in the workplace. Many of those in the audience were surprised to learn that grades and qualifications aren’t top of the list – behaviour and attitude is what matters most. Again this is something few young people are encouraged to consider at this age; as one teacher commented: “I worry because there’s a lot of emphasis on qualifications and grades, which as adults we know aren’t the most important thing, but there’s so much focus on it, that if they don’t achieve the best grades it can make young people feel like failures”. The session on confidence and workplace skills hopefully helped dispel the myth around the importance of qualifications, as everyone was instead encouraged to consider what they would bring to the workplace aside from their qualifications, with suggestions including teamwork, perseverance, work ethic and listening to others, reminding these young women that they have much more to offer than a grade: “Everyone is talented – it’s just a case of finding out where those talents lie”.

For myself, as a woman who had no virtually no awareness of what engineering entailed, I probably knew less than the students who came; and learning about the depth and breadth of what you could do within the field it was a genuine revelation. Hearing about the amazing things that women (and men) are working together to achieve to help us stay safe, connected and improving the quality of lives around the world, it almost made me wish I had a time machine so I could go back and consider engineering as student. I still think I’d end up doing what I do now because I love it, but it has made me realise how important it is that young people have as much information on the options available to them as possible. And it’s clear from the feedback from the students and teachers that they feel this way too:

“It was a great day – very useful to see the options available for students, and it’s definitely given them some food for thought”. feedback from a teacher at the event

“I’ve really enjoyed it – it’s been fun”. – feedback from student

“It’s made me really want to work for Thales!” – feedback from student

“A really useful day – I still don’t know exactly what I want to do, but it’s given me a much better idea of what my options are” – feedback from student

“I thought engineering was like fixing cars and that but it was brilliant . . . everyone at ICC should be allowed to do it” – feedback from student

“I liked the idea of the speed networking as it opened my eyes to the variations of different engineering roles. I also enjoyed the confidence in applying for jobs session as it was very helpful.” – feedback from student

“Today has been very enlightening and I have gained a lot more knowledge on the subject of engineering and what you can do and the different areas. Today has also inspired me to peruse an engineering career”. – feedback from student

“I liked how friendly all the staff were and how helpful they were”. – feedback from student

“I was able to gain more knowledge about engineering and what engineering consists of. I have a better idea of what pathway I could take after GCSE’S and how Engineering could link with any job I may do in the future”. – feedback from student