Lisa-Jayne Cook, service sales manager at GEA, explains why it's essential to break industry stereotypes and how promoting STEM can hold the answers.
Anyone who knows me will know I'm passionate about our industry and love all things RACHP, but I am also passionate about constantly improving inclusion and diversity across the board. A lot has changed since I entered the industry 21 years ago, from the revival of natural refrigerants to a shift in our attitudes towards energy consumption. But one element that has seen very little transformation is the number of women in technical roles. Statistics generated by the Women's Engineering Society [WES Statistics] suggest that the number of women studying engineering and physics has remained static during the last decade. Admittedly, engineering and refrigeration is not a career I had considered when I was at school. Still, it is a vocation I am extremely happy I chose and is one that I thoroughly enjoy. I am not alone in my enjoyment of my profession; other female engineers I have had the pleasure of meeting are as passionate and enthusiastic about their career choices.
The UK still has the lowest number of females working in engineering professions in Europe, accounting for only twelve per cent of the workforce [Engineering UK 2020]. The RACHP industry is no different. A paper published by the International Institute of Refrigeration in 2020 [Women In Refrigeration] suggests that females make up as little as four per cent of RACHP engineering roles in the UK. But why do so few women choose careers in engineering? Study after study shows that our culture and the stereotypes we are exposed to contribute significantly to this. Engineering is still viewed as a "Hard Hat" career, a career that is dirty, technical, and too difficult for girls to pursue. These stereotypes are not only generated amongst their peers but also in the home. The 2019 Engineering Brand Monitor survey found that parents of girls were less likely to recommend an engineering career to their children than boys' parents. These issues are deepened further by a lack of engineering in the curriculum in most mainstream schools.
To change these attitudes, we must cast off the age-old image of engineering and break down those gender stereotypes so that other women like me can celebrate their strengths. Making STEM activities accessible to schools and raising the profile of women in engineering is key to achieving this. By creating female role models, we will bring about a culture change. We are proving that there is a place for women within engineering and that we can have successful and fulfilling careers. It is commonly believed that until people see others like themselves doing well, they will find it hard to imagine themselves in that role. The more visible our role models are, the more effective they will be. We need to develop, support, and empower our women to be those positive role models to help attract new talent and retain the talent pool we have, and this is where STEMazing shines.
STEMazing is the creation of Alexandra Knight, an award-winning engineer, presenter, and diversity advocate. She is a Chartered Engineer, Fellow of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, on the Board of the Women's Engineering Society, a Royal Academy of Engineering Visiting Professor at Brunel University, and a STEM Ambassador. Alex worked in the engineering industry for over 15 years before focussing full time on STEMazing. Alex truly felt she could make a bigger impact in the World through empowering women in STEM to be more confident, visible role models and inspire our next generation of innovators and problem-solvers, and she wasn't wrong.
Earlier this year, Alex took the next step with STEMazing and launched the Inspiration Academy. The STEMazing Inspiration Academy supports women in STEM to shine as visible role models and inspires young people through fun, interactive online STEM sessions along the way. The academy participants take part in training and workshops to build their confidence on camera and their STEM delivery toolbox. These newly empowered role models then deliver a six-week programme of live STEM sessions designed to engage children aged five to nine. Schools and families benefit from this free programme by taking part in hands-on simple STEM activities to promote children's curiosity, creativity and courage.
I was one of the lucky few women selected to participate in the pilot scheme, which delivers all the required tools and resources over four months. The scheme is delivered free of charge thanks to its sponsors, with the only cost to the participants being their time and a small number of consumables such as Sellotape and Blu Tack. A total of 45 women from across three continents took part, and for the duration of the six-week live STEM sessions, each of these women engaged with 25 to 50 pupils. So in total, 1644 pupils joined the lessons from 37 different schools. It's incredible and inspiring to know that this small group of women can achieve this kind of reach in such a short amount of time.
As more pupils become engaged in the pilot scheme, and the greater the number of women in STEM become trained to be visible role models, it becomes clear the increased impact that we can have inspiring the next generation of STEM stars.
Making a difference
STEMazing, to put it simply, is a game-changer. It has gifted me the skills, confidence and resources to run hands-on STEM classes with primary school pupils, classes that are appealing, educational and most importantly of all, fun! I have been a registered STEM Ambassador for over a year and I have always taken part in activities within my comfort zone, like careers talks and the mentoring of older pupils (aged 16 to 19). However, STEMazing has taught me that to grow, I must move outside of my comfort zone and that as I grow, I am not the only person to benefit from my newfound skills and confidence. It has accelerated my development beyond what was achievable alone and helped me to become the role model I've always known I was but never had the confidence to be until now, that is. But it's more than that; STEMazing has encouraged me to become an ambassador, not only of the STEMazing brand but as an industry leader for inclusion and diversity. As a result, I feel motivated and inspired to offer a helping hand to others within the RACHP industry and beyond, to accelerate their development and help them to become visible role models.
Aside from the obvious benefits, STEMazing has grown my network, connecting me with female engineers within the RACHP sector across three continents and with engineers and support staff from other fields, widening my knowledge and understanding of careers in other areas of engineering. It has facilitated connections with primary schools within my local area and helped me forge a working relationship with these schools that will continue long after completing the programme. It has provided me with sharable content for social media that will help elevate my position as a role model and share the joy of STEM. And it's enhanced my team working skills, showing us how to recognise the strengths each person offers and by supporting and encouraging each other when we lack confidence in our abilities.
Shaping the future
Every one of us can help shape the future of our industry and bring about the desired culture change. Suppose you're passionate about engineering and RACHP, as well as the future of our children and grandchildren. In that case, I urge you not only to ask yourself how you can help elevate women within your business to become visible role models but also to encourage those around them to become allies, offering support and mentorships to accelerate their development. Encourage your teams to become STEM Ambassadors, bring engineering into the community, fill the gaps in our curriculums, and inspire our future innovators. And in future, when considering where to allocate your charitable funds, please consider sponsoring schemes such as STEMazing; I'm sure we can all agree just how invaluable they are. The culmination of these actions is a better future for all, a future in which you too may find the satisfaction and reward in inspiring the next generation of RACHP Stars!
Lisa-Jayne Cook is a member and trustee of the Institute of Refrigeration, member of the Women’s Engineering Society, director of the Air Conditioning and Refrigeration Industry Board, a STEMazing Woman and a STEM ambassador.