ISSUE 04 | LONDON FOCUS | OPINION
Taking a sledgehammer to engineering stereotypes
An award-winning chartered electrical engineer and founder of a publishing house, Kerrine Bryan challenges perceptions.
By Kerrine Bryan
My career started 15 years ago at a large oil and gas contractor on a graduate scheme. That was straight after my four-year Master’s degree in electronic and electrical engineering with language. I love what I do. Seeing a project from initial design through to the end product is a great feeling. Sometimes when I’m flying over Kent on a good day, I can see the Liquefied Natural Gas import terminal on the Isle of Grain. And I remember that when I started work on it, it only existed as an idea on paper.
But as a small child, engineering wasn’t something I dreamed about doing. I loved maths, so when I started A Levels, I was sure I wanted to pursue accountancy. Actually, I wasn’t really aware of any other jobs that I could do or would want to do. I don’t think I ever gave much thought to how my school studies would eventually be relevant to a job in the outside world.
It was my maths teacher who suggested I try out an engineering residential at Glamorgan University – a Headstart Scheme, which is now run by the Engineering Trust. I loved it so much that, after a year’s experience in the industry, I shelved any plans I had to become an accountant to go for a degree in engineering.
"It’s important both children and parents understand that these jobs are available and accessible to them”
There are loads of misconceptions about engineering that start from a really early age. Parents, teachers, and therefore children, aren’t aware of what the job really involves. It’s often thought of as a manually difficult job for older white men. I came to realise that if youngsters don’t see people who look like them doing a certain job, then they are less likely to go for it. That might seem like a crude simplification of a larger problem, but it’s certainly a contributing factor to the engineering sector’s diversity issue. That’s how I came to the idea of engineering late.
So I volunteered, doing talks about my job around the country to children as a STEM ambassador. That gave me the idea to develop a range of children’s books that could tackle some of these inherent misconceptions – a great way of communicating to children a positive message about all kinds of professions, especially STEM careers that are suffering skill gaps and diversity issues. It’s important both children and parents understand that these jobs are available and accessible to them – whatever their gender or background – and that the opportunity is there for the taking if they apply themselves, work hard and want it enough.
There are few women engineers around, but I think I was quite lucky. It feels a bit awkward to say that, but it’s a prime indicator of the times we are currently living in; there is still a lot of work to be done to stamp out bias and prejudice in the workplace. My male peers were very supportive of me being part of the engineering team and in fact commented on how they really respected professional female engineers more for making it through all the barriers that existed, and still do exist. It was only during a placement at a manufacturing company when I was 18 that I had an uncomfortable situation where my manager and mentor said that I looked “sexy in overalls”.
Invoking positive changes in STEM industries starts at grassroots level. It begins with schools linking subjects that are being taught with real jobs in society. This could be enhanced by getting more diverse role models and STEM ambassadors into schools to talk about their work. In turn, this could debunk any misconceptions children might have that they can’t do such a job because they’re black, or disadvantaged, or female. It’s a small but positive step in ‘normalising’ the idea of STEM jobs to children, especially among young and BAME girls.
I became a mother to a little girl last year. By the time she enters the working world, I am confident that industries currently lacking diversity at every level will be fewer than they are today. Progress is being made, but I don’t think the job will ever be finished. It takes a persistent combination of education and experience to bring down barriers and dismantle antiquated systems of working that cause inequality and bias.