What do comedian Rowan Atkinson, the President of China and supermodel Cindy Crawford have in common? Not much on the face of it. Yet they all trained as engineers reveals Dr Ranna Eardley-Patel, a chemical engineer herself and a STEM Ambassador, one of 30,000 volunteers inspiring young people in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics.

That's a good message for any young people, and specifically young women, who might dismiss engineering as dull. “And look at astronaut Tim Peake,” she says. “How can anyone say that what he does is boring? It's cool — but the problem is, you might not necessarily know what to study or what route to take in order to get there.”

Outreach

Explanation, then, is vital. One of the ways the industry can appeal to young women is through outreach programmes in secondary schools — something that Eardley-Patel is involved in as a STEM ambassador. Listening to someone from industry certainly inspired her when she was young.

“But perhaps we should start to talk to children in primary schools, too, to explain what engineering is,” she says. “Because when you are young, the people who tell you about the options available to you are your family — and your teachers. So I talk to young people, but I also talk to parents. If parents can understand what an engineering career is and are supportive of it, then that can make a big difference. Because if a young woman says: 'I want to be a software engineer,' but her mum and dad don't know what that is and look puzzled, then that's a negative response.”

Eardley believes more women are becoming engineers these days, but says more needs to be done to propel them into senior roles — and keep them there. “If the industry is not attracting women, we're not tapping into all of the available talent pool,” she says. “If you compare the UK to nations that are doing that, we come up short. We're not doing as well in terms of innovation and wealth generation.”

Parity

To encourage young women in STEM, there also needs to be a greater number of visible female role models, she argues, rather than the same ones appearing again and again. Plus there needs to be parity with regards male and female pay. “We have to talk about this subject,” she says. “If we don't talk about it and identify it as an issue, then nothing will change.”

When any young person asks Eardley why she is so passionate about chemical engineering, she tells them that it touches every part of our lives. “I ask them to tell me something they care about,” she says. “Someone said to me: 'I care about my grandma'. Well, their grandma might have diabetes, for example. Now, I work in regenerative medicine and biotechnology, which is used to discover and make the modern treatments for diabetes therapy. Or think of it this way: a chemical engineer has designed the process to make the bread we have for breakfast — and to pasteurise the milk you drink.”