Let’s #choosetochallenge stereotypes on STEM careers this International Women’s Day

Kareema Hilton works as a manufacturing engineer, in the Machining and Additive Manufacturing Team at the National Manufacturing Institute Scotland (NMIS), leading a variety of projects.

To mark this year’s theme #choosetochallenge for International Women’s Day, Kareema gives a personal view on the impact of misleading stereotypes on a career in the science, technology, engineering, and manufacturing (STEM) sectors, and why these perceptions must be questioned and resolved.

Growing up, attending an all-girls school, I never knew that I wanted to be an engineer. Despite always loving mathematics, it was not until after I had completed my first set of exams that I chose to challenge myself and pursue physics as my field of study.

Several years later, with a degree in astrophysics and a masters in aeronautical engineering, I am proud to be part of the 12.3% of women engineers in the UK1. Despite the array of female leaders entering the world of STEM over the years, including within NMIS, women are still underrepresented in these roles globally. We take a joined-up approach and work to challenge these figures, encouraging young people, both male and female, to consider an incredibly fulfilling career within these roles.

Gender stereotypes within engineering and manufacturing are unfortunately still present, although it is great to see that we are moving in the right direction. There are more than 30,000 STEM ambassadors across the UK, from a range of disciplines in engineering, design and science, who are working hard to debunk the myths of these sectors and shed light on what a career can really look like. From a young age, gender stereotypes are instilled into children and there is far more work that must be done to change these perceptions.

women's day
Kareema Hilton

Engineering as a profession is often perceived as the sole role of a ‘mechanic,’ and a position more apt for a man, with the workload deemed as hard, dirty and laborious. However, this is simply not the case.

The National Manufacturing Institute Scotland (NMIS) is a place where industry, academia and the public sector work together on ground-breaking manufacturing research to transform productivity levels, makes companies more competitive and boost the skills of our current and future workforce.

As a manufacturing engineer working for NMIS on major projects with industry clients, I am lucky to be involved in some amazing developments within machining and additive manufacturing.

Working in engineering is about challenging yourself. To be an engineer, you must be a creative and balanced individual with the ability to hone in on critical thinking and problem solving with a drive to change.  Most days my hands do not get ‘dirty’ at all, but equally, mucking in can also be one of the most rewarding elements of my week.

Many also believe that engineers are introverted by nature, entirely focused on aspects of engineering alone. However, engineering is a vast field of study, attracting all kinds of people and I personally spend a large amount of my time communicating with customers to meet briefs and deadlines, an element of my job that I absolutely love.

As a STEM ambassador, a question I am often is asked is ‘do you have to be clever to be an engineer?’ This question needs to be rephrased; it is not about being clever. It is about finding your way and believing in yourself. There are so many routes to develop into a career in engineering and STEM, whether that be through an apprenticeship, college or university programme – as long as you work hard, you will get there. Do not be deterred if maths is not your strongest subject, engineering is a fascinating, vast field with endless opportunities. It takes a lot of brain power and pushes the limits of knowledge on technology.

It is profoundly clear that this shift will require much more than just time. We need to proactively encourage young people to look past their initial perceptions of engineering and STEM and show the vast variety of options on offer to them. It will take courage and perseverance to challenge stereotypes and perceptions, but together we must nurture young people’s self believe, particularly in light of the pandemic, and prepare our industry for the future ahead. This International Women’s Day, let’s look at what steps we take within our own roles to inspire, educate, inform and moreover choose to challenge the historic perceptions of engineering and manufacturing.