Lucy's story has changed perceptions of STEM
Breaking stereotypes What can be done to persuade more young women to pursue a STEM career? Giving them access to female role models is a good place to start, says one established engineer.
When she was 16, academic high-flyer Lucy Ackland decided to join engineering and scientific technology company Renishaw as an apprentice.
"It was a controversial move — her school advised her against it."
“In the run-up to GCSEs, my plan had always been to take A-Levels and then go to university,” says Ackland, now 29 and a Senior Development Engineer with the company. “I was a good student and expectations were high for me. The thing was, I knew what I wanted to do with my life — and I just wanted to get started. I thought that if I went to university I would lose focus.”
Engineering had been a passion of Ackland's since the age of 14. “I had always enjoyed maths, physics and design & technology at school,” she says. “Then my design & technology teacher sent me on an engineering experience weekend. That opened my eyes to the subject and at that point I thought: 'This is fantastic. This is for me.' That one weekend shaped my entire career.”
Taking every opportunity
Her school might have not been pleased, but Ackland has never regretted her decision. “Before my GCSEs, I saw an advert for an apprenticeship at Renishaw. When I looked into it, I discovered that this would allow me to train while working, I wouldn't have to pay any fees and I could earn a salary. It made me wonder why more people didn't do it. For me, it seemed like the smart option. Why wouldn't I take all of those opportunities that were being offered to me for free?”
Practically it was a good idea, too. If there was a topic at college that Ackland was having trouble understanding, the next day she would be at work, surrounded by engineers. “I had a constant support group that I would never have had at university,” she says. “And I could learn something and then put it into practice straight away.”
“Renishaw now have over 100 STEM ambassadors, focussing on getting more girls into the industry"
Ambassador for her industry
Post-apprenticeship, Ackland went on to gain a first class honours degree in mechanical and manufacturing engineering, fully financed by the company; and, in 2014, she won the national Women's Engineering Society prize. She now runs a team that works with leading universities on early stage technology research, and creates machines for industry that 3D print in metal.
"Ackland is determined to give something back to her industry and has become a STEM ambassador for the company."
As a STEM ambassador, Ackland is a passionate advocate of women in engineering and STEM subjects, giving talks and running workshops in schools and at careers fairs to give girls the confidence to pursue a career in engineering.
“We now have over 100 STEM ambassadors in the company, and our focus is on getting more girls into the industry,” says Ackland. “The benefits of women in the workplace are obvious, particularly in a research environment, because mixed teams come up with such an amazing array of ideas.”
Influencing and inspiring others
Female role models are important, she says, because “young women are more influenced by people who are just like them. Telling them our story and being able to inspire them can really makes a difference.” Doing this at an early age — when girls are at primary school — is key, Ackland believes.
"Young women are more influenced by people who are just like them."
Talking to school age children is also a good way to dispel the myth that engineering is about oily rags and hard hats. “Female perceptions of engineering are largely wrong,” says Ackland. “That's why I invite schools into our hi-tech facility to show them that it's a great place in which to work; and to demonstrate that working with brand new technologies — such as 3D printing — is so exciting and a world away from that traditional engineering stereotype.
“We often encourage mums and dads to visit us, too, because their perceptions of engineering can be negative; and girls are more likely to be swayed by their parents than boys. Those kind of things can really make a difference. But getting girls into the industry is just one piece of the puzzle: we then need to retain them by nurturing them, valuing them and progressing them at the same rate as their male colleagues.”