How can we encourage more young women into STEM?

women in STEM
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By Matabe Eyong, Research Chemist, BP

A science career was not always on the cards for me.

I grew up in Cameroon, where it was a common belief that women are less likely to pursue careers in Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (“STEM”). So how did I end up as a research chemist at one of the world’s largest energy companies?

It all comes down to my surroundings. I grew up with five brothers; three of them went into science and engineering roles, so I knew what was out there. I was aware of the opportunities STEM could bring and wanted to bridge the gender gap within my family and my surroundings. This deep-rooted aspiration motivated me to do two bachelor degrees in chemistry and biological science, and to do a masters in physical chemistry. To this day, my cultural background and love of science are what gets me out of bed in the morning. Based on my experience, having worked in the oil and gas industry for more than a decade, there are two things which I believe are essential in order to encourage more females into STEM roles:

Demystify STEM

We need to be better at explaining what we do, and highlighting the myriad of opportunities within STEM. We need to highlight that STEM goes beyond someone fixing our washing machines. STEM careers are about creative problem-solving for real world problems. At BP, I design and build small pilot plants, design experiments, develop analytical methods and ensure that all chemicals used on our vessels and valves have been tested and are safe. I believe that it is important to go into schools and talk to both a male and female audience at a young age – the earlier the better. BP’s Schools Link programme in the UK, which is an employee volunteering programme, is a good example of this, inspiring young people in STEM and business subjects through face-to-face engagement with BP employees.

However, it’s also crucial to communicate the benefits of STEM to key influencer groups, namely parents. If a parent is not on-board or has a limited understanding of STEM roles, how can they be inspiring and supportive if a child expresses interest in the field?

Be a role model

Building on the first point, I believe there is a need for women in STEM to be more vocal about our careers and what it’s like working in this area. This should happen not only during key dates in the calendar, such as International Women in Engineering Day, but year-round. Whether it’s speaking to interns who complete a summer placement with our companies and offering advice, or talking more about STEM in our personal lives, we need to more actively communicate the benefits of a STEM career. When I go to dinner parties and am asked to introduce myself, I always mention that I’m research chemist. It’s just who I am. It has proven to be a great conversation opener, as people are genuinely interested in what I do.

I also think that businesses should make a bigger effort to provide role models for our future workforce. In cooperation with Microsoft, BP developed the online platform, Modern Muse, which allows girls from the age of eight to follow and connect with registered ‘muses’ (role models). This allows girls to connect with successful women in STEM roles to talk about their careers. This aims to provide girls with additional information about the STEM career patch, inspire them from a young age and hopefully help them make a more informed decision about their future careers.

Looking back, I’m glad I had my brothers who showed me what types of science and engineering careers were out there, but I know that not everyone has that exposure. So, I always make a conscious effort to talk to young women about what a career in STEM is really like. If we all make an effort, and are open when someone approaches us, we can show a new generation of young women that there are endless possibilities for a rewarding career in STEM.

About the author

Matabe has an impressive academic career – she holds three university degrees, including a Bachelor of Science in Physics, a double major in Chemistry and Biological Science, and a Master’s degree in Physical Chemistry.

Matabe gained experience in various different industries – she worked for cosmetics, food and beverage  and oil and gas companies. Following the birth of her son, she decided to go into research and joined BP.

The main reason for her to pursue a career in science was triggered by the surroundings of her childhood. Growing up in Africa, where science was perceived as a man’s role, and being the only girl of a family with five brothers, she always tried to bridge the gender gap within her family and her surroundings.

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