‘Misleading stereotypes’ put girls off engineering careers, STEM ambassador claims

Khadijah Ismail

A female STEM ambassador believes “misleading stereotypes” are to blame for a lack of women in the sector.

Khadijah Ismail, aged 19, who has secured an engineering apprenticeship with defence, security and aerospace multinational BAE Systems, said girls often misunderstand what the traditionally male-dominated industry has to offer.

Ismail said, “I’ve found that a lot of young girls think engineering is all about wearing dirty overalls and getting full of grime.”

“Of course, in engineering there can be an element of that, but there are so many paths you can take.”

“I think these stereotypes are misleading and need to be challenged.”

“I believe more girls would consider engineering as a career if they fully understood what it entails.”

According to a Women into Science and Engineering survey from 2017, just 11 per cent of the engineering workforce is female. The Engineering UK 2017 report highlights that 265,000 skilled entrants are required annually to meet demand for engineering enterprises up to 2024.

Despite her blossoming career as a degree apprentice aerospace engineer, Khadijah overcame personal challenges to pursue her dream job.

In order to follow her dream, she often left the comfort of her girls’ school to study A-Level electronics and became the only female in a boys-only class.

“I was nervous.”

“At first, I barely spoke or contributed.”

“I was apprehensive because I was unsure how the boys would react, but I eventually answered a question from the teacher and it was well received.”

“From then on it was absolutely fine.”

Her passion for engineering began when she was just 13 growing up in Bolton, Greater Manchester.

“I absolutely love planes and used to watch them fly overhead,” she said. “I had the best view from my attic window.

“I actually emailed the airport to ask them to send more planes my way. It sounds a bit silly now, but all I wanted to do was watch more and more.”

Luckily for Khadijah, the airport responded, explaining to her the complexities of air traffic control and telling her about airshows she could attend.

Inspired by her design and technology teacher at the girls’ division of the prestigious Bolton School, in Year 11 she discovered scholarships were available for aspiring young females.

She said, “A sixth form girl gave a talk about how she received an Arkwright Engineering Scholarship.”

“I instantly knew it was something I wanted to go for, so I asked my teacher to put me forward for it.”

Arkwright Engineering Scholarships are designed to find the next generation of engineering leaders. It involves a rigorous selection process, including a two-hour exam, a project and a university-based interview, with only the most talented young people making the grade. Former scholars include award-winning BBC presenter Steph McGovern, who forged a career at Black & Decker before moving into business journalism.

She added, “I didn’t take anything related to engineering when I chose my GCSE options so I wasn’t sure how I would do.”

“It was a very tough application process, but it was excellent. I would recommend it to anyone interested in engineering.

“Five of us applied, but the others were studying design and technology, so they had a head start. I had to work on the project in my spare time.

“Luckily, two of us made it through. I was absolutely delighted because the scholarships have such a strong reputation, with many people going on to successful engineering careers with some of the biggest companies. I was in complete shock when I heard the news.”

As part of her award, Khadijah received sponsorship and funding through her A-Levels from the RAF.

She pooled her money with another successful applicant to buy a robot in order to showcase the possibilities of engineering to her fellow pupils.

She said: “It would mimic whatever the pupils did and told jokes, which was a lot of fun. I wanted to open other girls’ minds to the potential of working in engineering.

“My school was very academic, with a lot of students already determined to follow an academic route and head to university. I wanted to show that going down that path isn’t the only option.”

After completing her A-Levels, Khadijah secured places at all of her chosen universities. However, she was determined to become an apprentice.

“Of all the students in my year, I was the only one to do an apprenticeship,” she added. “Most went on to do a degree.”

She became one of just 15 people to be selected for a five-year aerospace engineering apprenticeship with BAE Systems in 2017.

She said: “I absolutely love it. It is so interesting. I have been lucky enough to work on RAF sites and even been to Spain to visit Airbus.

“Aside from the work, I am able to study for a degree, develop my personal and professional skills, and get paid for it. And the opportunities are almost limitless.”

Khadijah’s latest projects include working with developing virtual reality technology and a type of high-altitude, solar-powered satellite.

She has also become a STEM ambassador, which included promoting the possibilities of the sector to new Arkwright scholars and schoolgirls.

She said, “It doesn’t matter who you are or your background, you can become anything you want to be if you are committed and work hard. Don’t rule yourself out of a fantastic career opportunity due to stereotypes .”

To find out more about Arkwright Engineering Scholarships, visit www.arkwright.org.uk.

Alison Simpson
About the author

Alison is the Digital Content Editor for WeAreTheCity. She has a BA Honours degree in Journalism and History from the University of Portsmouth. She has previously worked in the marketing sector and in a copywriting role. Alison’s other passions and hobbies include writing, blogging and travelling.

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