Did you know that women make up just 9% of the engineering workforce in the UK?

At the British Science Association, we know that part of the reason why women are underrepresented in engineering (and across the board in STEM) is because of the stereotypes and gendered atmospheres that can be reinforced during formative school years.

Academic studies have found that children can start to absorb gender labels from as young as two, and that gender roles and stereotypes solidify as they get older and progress through the education system. The influence of these stereotypes becomes clear when young people start making possibly career-defining decisions. We have discussed in a previous blog how data shows that, of students who study engineering and physics at A-level, 87% and 78% respectively are male. (This data does not take into account students who may identify as non-binary.)

One of the aims of our education programme, the CREST Awards, is to be part of the solution to this problem. No matter what their gender identity or background, CREST Awards can help young people to see the vast possibilities of a career in STEM, despite what stereotypes may tell them their future job should look like.

Dr Aimée Helliker can attest to this. As part of a placement at the University of Birmingham during her A-level studies, Dr Helliker earned her own Gold CREST Award, the title of her project being 'Drainage system for a train wash warehouse'. Fast-forward to now and she is a lecturer in Military Engineering at Cranfield University and an internationally recognised expert in weapon signature mitigation.

“The CREST project was a new and different way of approaching science and engineering,” she said. “It was a real-life problem and a challenge to own, as we were able to research and apply knowledge to a full project.”

She continued: “Whilst the project wasn’t the field I went into, the CREST Award had demonstrated how interesting and satisfying engineering could be. I think the best bit of the CREST Award was the fact you actually got to do something which had purpose and, whilst hard work, it was great fun – so why wouldn’t you want to do that in everyday life?”

Working hard, with purpose, and having fun at the same time is certainly an ethos Dr Helliker has carried through her career. After gaining a degree in mechanical engineering and a PhD in ballistics (the science of propulsion, flight and the impact of projectiles), she joined Cranfield University as a lecturer, based at Cranfield Defence and Security, Shrivenham , “a secure military site in partnership with the Defence Academy, Ministry of Defence, UK”.

“Teaching at Shrivenham means a military theme which produces some different challenges and opportunities,” she told us. “Research is varied and challenging but also enjoyable – I’ve worked on so many systems and had opportunities that are so unique. For example, I’ve represented the UK at NATO presenting the research I’ve been involved in.”

Although women are a stark minority in defence engineering, Dr Helliker tells us that she has had a positive experience in the workplace, being treated as an equal alongside her male colleagues (even if they are often very surprised when first meeting a female engineer working in the area!). This is a positive sign for future female engineers!

We asked Dr Helliker what she would say to girls considering a career in STEM. She said: “Do it! There is so much within STEM and it’s very much for all – the opportunities are endless. The skills you learn aren’t just for the workplace, you can apply them outside too – problem solving, project management, communication and teamwork.”

A Gold CREST Awards looks fantastic on any student’s UCAS or job application form whether they intend to study or work in STEM or not, and the school summer holidays are the perfect opportunity to complete one. Gold Awards require around 70 hours of work and, as Dr Helliker has shown, the time, dedication and effort that goes into these projects really can pay off!