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The STEM superheroes


Yasmin Ali, University of Nottingham graduate and STEM superhero

Maybe the answer is to be more Shuri. For the uninitiated the reference is to a kick-ass superhero in last year’s Marvel smash hit Black Panther – who also happens to be an engineering mastermind. The problem? How to inspire more women into STEM (Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) careers.

“There are so many different factors as to why there’s a lack of women in STEM fields, I couldn’t even begin to break it down.”

So says our own engineering mastermind Yasmin Ali (Chemical Engineering, 2010), who since graduating has won numerous awards including the Women’s Engineering Society Young Woman Engineer in 2013 and currently works for the Government’s Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy as an energy engineer, advising policy makers and politicians on the technical aspects of the UK’s energy engineering issues.

She is also volunteering as part of a new programme which sees her and other engineering graduates mentor current students at the University, who in turn support female pupils at Nottingham University Academy of Science and Technology (NUAST), with the intention of inspiring a new cohort of Shuris.

“Our hope is that by taking a tiered approach and providing role models at different stages of a student’s journey, it will capture the imagination of children who might otherwise not see a university degree, and in this case an engineering degree particularly, as an achievable goal,” says Chris Birchall, Employability Education Projects Officer here at the University.

The root of the STEM issue

Depending on the source you read women make up anything from 15 to as little as 11 percent of the workforce in STEM fields, and although figures had been rising significantly from 20-30 years ago they are now stagnating once more.

“In the industry it can feel like we’re in a bit of a bubble. There’s lots of events taking place to highlight the issue but we’re talking to each other and I don’t know if we’re that good at externally communicating,” Yasmin continues.

“I realise I can’t fix the problem but by participating in volunteering schemes like the University’s or writing about the issue I hope I can reach parents, as we have to influence the people influencing the decisions of young girls.

“I read some research suggesting mums are more likely to discourage their daughters from pursuing an engineering job because it’s so male dominated and they don’t want their daughters going through it and having a difficult life. But I’d counter engineering careers are exciting, varied, well paid and respected. Women should take advantage of these jobs.”

For context, Yasmin’s parents are both doctors and were keen for her to pursue a career in STEM, but otherwise she describes a lack of both careers support and female role models in her formative years.

“Left to my own devices I’m not sure what I would have ended up doing, but the careers advice (at school) was awful.

“I don’t recall any role models I looked up to when studying either but I certainly think young girls appreciate being able to look up to someone a couple of steps ahead of them – but you can be inspired by both men and women too.”

The challenge of breaking through

In conversation with Yasmin there is a sense the sector is full of contradictions, whether it’s the well-meaning but flawed recruitment events: “Trying to project an image which isn’t truly reflective of the workforce,” or the difficulty in building one’s confidence working with experienced male colleagues: “Some will provide an explanation hugely confidently…and then I realise that possibly it’s wrong,” but her passion and positivity shine through – along with the belief that things are changing for the better.

There are a number of hugely vibrant networks which will provide any aspiring STEM recruits with a wealth of expertise and connections (one of which - whynotchemeng - Yasmin credits with sparking her interest in chemical engineering).

The University’s mentoring scheme is also set to continue following this year’s successful pilot, with the role of alumni recognised as being key; as Chris Birchall emphasises:

“The alumni offer a far more relatable role model than is often found within the university. They were previously in the position the students are now in and so are able to offer advice and guidance which students respect, especially because they see someone talking from a position on where they hope to be in the short to medium term too.”

And of course there’s the small matter of a new Avengers film landing in cinemas next month so who knows if Shuri will turn up and save the entire planet? (Yes, she technically isn’t alive as things stand…)

Fancy being a superhero? Learn more about career mentoring

Posted on Monday 1st April 2019

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