Building a workforce for a sustainable future

Online Editor

Carolina Cardona explains why the UK should lead the way in encouraging more women into STEM roles

As I write this piece the UK Government’s Green Jobs taskforce has just issued its 15 recommendations for the Government, business and education sector to work together to transition the workforce for a low carbon future; building skills and careers that support the economy alongside our net zero goals. It’s an incredibly important objective. However, more can be done to make sure that the green economy workforce is built with gender diversity at its heart.

Ever since I was a child I’ve thought like an engineer. I was the child who pulled the video recorder apart to see what was inside and that interest solidified as I grew older. I studied hard at school and college, often being the only female in the class even when I studied my Masters at university. This led to a rewarding career working with ABB, initially in oil & gas, before transitioning to industrial applications.

I really benefitted from having family members in engineering, and people who actively encouraged my interest; counteracting the gender bias that exists in STEM subjects, not just in the UK but around the world.

Yet I realise that my story is not necessarily typical and that many young girls who may have the foundations to gain qualifications in STEM subjects and follow related careers take different paths. We know this because still only 24% of the UK STEM workforce is made-up by women.

Now, more than ever, is the time to address this.

The UK Government is taking a leadership role in the race to net zero, hosting this year’s COP26, and paving the way with policies such as the Prime Minister’s 10-point plan for a green industrial revolution. As a country we also have an opportunity to innovate in education and address the gender bias that exists by putting in place policies which encourage girls and women to study STEM subjects and eventually follow related career paths.

After all, if we’re building a workforce to meet the challenges of climate change, we need to tap into the full potential of that workforce, not just 50% of it. To quote Melinda Gates from a recent article in The Times: “A gender-equal recovery would not only jumpstart GDP growth in the immediate term. It would build the foundations for sustainable prosperity by unleashing all the energy, creativity, and untapped potential within half the world’s population.”

Young girls making educational choices to achieve their career goals are unlikely to strive for something that they do not even know exists. Unfortunately, engineering and the scarcity of well-known female role models in the field means that such a career path is hard to follow. Gender diversity in professions like medicine or teaching are perhaps easier to follow, not least because we all experience the brilliant skills of doctors and teachers from childhood, and there are many visible female role models in day-to-day life to look-up to.

To address this, we need to take female representation of our profession directly into schools, we must show girls the opportunities open to them and the rewards of careers in engineering and other STEM professions. Every opportunity to inspire another female into our workforce needs to be taken. And it’s rewarding – my favourite day this year was taking part in an ABB webinar for the daughters, nieces and friends of staff to show them what we do and one day, what they could do too.

But we will only move the dial if industry’s efforts are supported by educational policies. That means looking at gender bias in language, addressing the dominance of male success in textbooks and other teaching materials; even looking at the cultural representation of particular professions.

The role of an engineer is to adapt to changes in the world around them and find solutions to the challenges this brings. There is no greater challenge than the need to create a sustainable future. It’s the ultimate problem to solve and to do that we need diversity of thought, combined with the very best minds. Achieving this starts in education. Let’s make sure that we inspire the minds of all, not just half of the potential workforce.

Carolina Cardona is Control Systems Engineer, ABB in the UK