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Don’t believe the myths: STEM careers are great for women

Mother of two, and Head of Flight Physics and Capability at Airbus, Victoria Cole doesn’t have a degree in a STEM subject — but that didn’t stop her career as a team leader for a global aeronautical company. Don’t believe the stereotypes, she says.

At school, Victoria Cole never considered the possibility of applying for a STEM career. “STEM subjects just weren’t my ‘thing’,” she says. “I got good grades for maths and sciences at GCSE, so I wasn’t bad at them. But I wasn’t really interested, so took A Levels in psychology, history and PE, instead. I avoided physics like the plague.”

That’s ironic, because Victoria is now Head of Flight Physics and Capability at Airbus, the global corporation that manufactures and sells civil and military aeronautical products.

She believes her initial STEM reluctance can be traced back to the careers advice she received at school — or lack of it. “The real-life applications of what the industry does — and the opportunities and excitement it affords — were never explained to me,” she says. “What changed my mind was working in the industry and discovering those things for myself.”

I realised my temp job could become a real career

Victoria began working at the company “by accident” 12 years ago after graduating from university with a degree in social policy. “I started as a temp in a fairly untechnical role,” she says. “Back then it was just a job; but then various opportunities started presenting themselves to me, and I realised that I liked the environment and could imagine a career in it.”

And so, a contract that was supposed to last for eight weeks, never ended. Victoria was given a permanent job in 2007, and began a Higher National Certificate (HNC) and then a Higher National Diploma (HND), on day release, all paid for by the company. She then moved to one of Airbus’s transnational departments in Toulouse, France, and stayed there for four years.

Having a stem career and a family

She is, she says, living proof that women can progress up the STEM career ladder without forsaking a family life. Victoria returned to Airbus after a year away to have her first child (she has a five-year-old and a two-year-old).

“I decided that I wanted my own team within the company and my manager was tremendously supportive of that ambition,” she remembers. “He sponsored me on a Future Leaders training programme and gave me more responsibility so that I could step into a team leader’s shoes.”

The thing was, Victoria didn’t know any other top-level women in the company who had children. Could she have the space to be a mum and perform in a senior role? The answer, she found, was a resounding ‘yes’. “I received positive messages from management saying: ‘We’re changing. You can do it! You can have it all.’

Then, last September, this team leader role became available, so I applied, and I got it.’” Currently, she says, the number of senior women with children at the company is growing.

It’s not all about being techy in stem careers – behaviour is important too

Victoria’s message to anyone considering a STEM career is to seize the opportunities and don’t be put off by the stereotypes. For one thing, the industry is more flexible than ever.

“We have flexible hours and smart working so that employees can work from home when needed,” she says. “There’s an emphasis on empowering people to be in charge of their own development; plus, a massive push to get more women into the company.

Also, behavioural competencies are just as key as technical ones. It’s so important to be able to work well with other people, and to be aware of their needs and feelings. You don’t have to come from a ‘traditional’ STEM background.”

Victoria admits that STEM is still a male-dominated workplace — but things are slowly changing. “Increasing numbers of women are entering the industry,” she says. “And I enjoy working with them. But I enjoy working with men, too, who all know who I am because I’m in the minority. As a woman in this industry, you’re in the spotlight, which you can use to your advantage. You have excellent chances to be recognised, remembered, and pushed forward. And as a female manager of an entirely male team, I love bringing a change of culture to the room.”

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