Clear vision: Opportunities for women in science, engineering and technology

Female graduates of science and engineering often outperform their male counterparts

Billed by a television critic as a "scary lady", Claire Carr, engineer and senior project manager on the £600m revamp of St Pancras station, laughs. "I was portrayed in the television programme about the project as a raving lunatic. I'm not really."

Carr, 31, is something of a novelty as a senior engineer managing several hundred strong teams, but she's keen to dispel any notions of prejudice in a sector where women are hugely under-represented. "I've been in the industry for 11 years and I've never come across a biased view because I'm a woman."

Across the science, engineering and technology sectors, employers aren't getting enough women, and they want more – not just for political correctness. They need them to increase the pool of talent from which they select the best candidates for jobs – women graduates of science and engineering often outperform their male counterparts. And, anecdotally, firms say they seek women out for their interpersonal skills they bring to project work which is commonplace within the sector.

"We have big employers desperate for more women because they want a different perspective," says Yvonne Baker, chief executive of STEMNET, the science, engineering, technology and mathematics network, which aims to enthuse young people about the sector. "It's not a macho, dirty working environment; it's high-tech, varied and hugely exciting."

But somewhere along the way, women have veered away from a career in science and engineering – be it down to the choices they make early on at school, university or starting employment. While the days are gone when university engineering faculties had no female toilets, alarmingly few women are choosing to study sciences. And many of those that do are choosing jobs elsewhere. Some 75 per cent of women graduates in science and technology don't end up working in the sector compared to half of male graduates.

While some industries are well-represented with women employees – biomedical sciences, for example, the physical sciences – chemistry, engineering and physics report a dearth of women across the board and particularly at senior level.

But groups such as the UK Resource Centre for Women (UKRC), set up by the Government to tackle the problem, are optimistic that growth areas might appeal more to women than traditional disciplines have done. Sustainable energy is now at the forefront of technological development in the UK. "Careers in renewables or sustainable buildings might appeal more to women because of their ethical nature," says Annette Williams, director of UKRC in SET (science engineering and technology). "Traditionally women have been put off some careers in the sector because of their associations with military for instance. There's a big push too in biotechnology, biosciences, nanotechnology and pharmaceuticals."

Ahead of the 2012 Olympics, the UKRC is urging employers to capitalise on women's talent for the many openings in design, construction and technology projects. And for technology graduates, there are more opportunities now outside traditional areas – IT graduates have opportunities to work within a wide variety of employers, from media to management consultancy. To combat skill shortages, an array of IT postgraduate conversion courses are springing up around universities.

In spite of the current economic jitters, the Association of Graduate Recruiters (AGR) says its members report a sizeable skills shortage in engineering and mechanical engineering, which is the fourth largest graduate employer among AGR members, just behind investment banking.

In this climate, women graduates should capitalise on their employability, advise career services. Some institutions such as the University of Manchester run popular mentoring schemes – whereby current undergraduates and postgraduates can apply to find a mentor working in an area they are considering. "The feedback is incredible – women say the advice can be inspirational," says Tammy Goldfeld, assistant director at the University of Manchester's careers and employability division. "Diversity is high on the agenda of many companies across different sectors," she says. "A lot of companies are being very proactive."

Making the most of any female-specific recruitment campaigns and events, researching employers through organisations such as Opportunity Now ( www.opportunitynow.org.uk) and taking full advantage of schemes such as Aurora Network ( auroravoice.com) will give you the edge, advise experts. "Even if employers aren't particularly diverse, they may want to be," says Baker. "You sometimes have to go on gut feeling."

And the UKRC urges women undergraduates and graduates alike to think early about forging a network of professional contacts. The centre runs its own database of women in SET and encourages students to register. "We can notify you of training, events and appointments – and signpost you towards regional groups and national organisations a form of support," says Williams. Contact individual professional institutions, she advises; many of them run women's networking groups and are an excellent start to networking.

Once within an organisation, she underlines the importance of maintaining a high profile. "A lot of women don't feel comfortable with the kind of traditional socialising and networking that men enjoy," says Williams. "You have to try and build a rapport your own way, put yourself forward for projects and make yourself known to the people who make the decisions."

It's an approach that worked for Samme Brough, 23, who works as a geoscientist within the energy industry. "My advice is pick up the phone rather than sending out CVs or e-mails – or speak to people face to face; attend workshops, conferences and network," she says. "There are so many people in this industry willing to hand on information and contacts if you have just graduated – you have to show your personality and sell it."

Remember also, says Baker, that the sector doesn't only seek the top-performing graduates. "There are rewarding jobs at all levels," she says. "You don't have to be best in the class; these are jobs for ordinary people."

Further information: ukrc4setwomen.org, womenintechnology.co.uk, wisecampaign.org.uk (women into science engineering and construction), www.stemnet.org.uk, girlgeekdinners.com, www.wiset.eps.manchester.ac.uk (University of Manchester networking group)

'Everybody in this field really cares about their work'

Samme Brough, 23, finished a BSc in environmental earth sciences in 2007 at the University of East Anglia. She has worked as a geoscientist at Ikon Science for 14 months. Brough also works as a science and engineering ambassador to help young people understand the possibilities of science and engineering.

The oil industry is somewhere I can integrate all my sciences. We use software to locate oil and gas fields. I spend my time gathering and interpreting information, going into the field to look at rocks and geology to see how they are related to what's on my computer, attending conferences abroad and liaising with clients.

I love doing this – it's a multidisciplinary job – it's following all my passions – physical geography, the oil industry. Everybody you meet in this field really cares about their work.

Being an ambassador is the most fantastic thing – it's inspiring coming up against school children – they ask questions I can't answer straight off – it reminds me why I love this area. We're about a third women at work but quite often I'm the only woman in client meetings or at conferences. There have never been any issues about that. If you have an idea or vision in this environment, you can follow it, it doesn't matter if you are male or female; it's a positive, progressive environment.

I'm not on a graduate scheme – the volatile nature of the energy sector means you can forge your own way. If you have an idea, people want to hear it and if it's good, it's facilitated. That's the joy of working for a small company, it's very flexible.

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