‘Misleading stereotypes’ put girls off engineering careers, STEM ambassador claims

6 December 2018

A female STEM ambassador who defied the odds to land her dream job believes “misleading stereotypes” are to blame for a lack of women in the engineering.


Khadijah Ismail, aged 19, who resisted her parents’ wishes by securing an apprenticeship at one of the world’s biggest engineering firms, said girls often misunderstand what the traditionally male-dominated industry has to offer.


“I’ve found that a lot of young girls think engineering is all about wearing dirty overalls and getting full of grime,” she said. “Of course, in engineering there can be an element of that, but it’s so much more than that. I think these stereotypes are misleading and need to be challenged.


“I believe more girls would consider engineering as a career if they fully understood what it entails.”


According to a Women into Science and Engineering survey from 2017, just 11% of the engineering workforce is female. The Engineering UK 2017 report highlights that 265,000 skilled entrants are required annually to meet demand for engineering enterprises up to 2024.


And despite her blossoming career as a degree apprentice aerospace engineer with defence, security and aerospace multinational BAE Systems, Khadijah was forced to overcome a series of personal challenges to pursue her dream job.


When her parents discovered her career plans, they seemed reluctant and didn’t like the idea of a girl studying/working in a male dominated environment.


“They really wanted me to become a doctor, work in medicine or follow a more academic career path,” she said. But it was my dream and I was determined to prove to them that I could do it.”


In order to follow her dream, she often left the comfort of her girls’ school to study A-Level electronics and became the only female in an all-boys class.


“I was nervous,” she said. “I barely spoke or contributed. I was apprehensive because I was unsure how the boys would react, but I eventually answered a question from the teacher and it was well received. From then on it was absolutely fine.”


Her passion for engineering began when she was just 13 growing up in Bolton, Greater Manchester.


““I absolutely love planes and used to watch them fly overhead,” she said. “I had the best view from my attic window.


“I actually emailed the airport to ask them to send more planes my way. It sounds a bit silly now, but all I wanted to do was watch more and more.”


Luckily for Khadijah, the airport responded, explaining to her the complexities of air traffic control and telling her about airshows she could attend.


Inspired by her design and technology teacher at the girls’ division of the prestigious Bolton School, in Year 11 she discovered scholarships were available for aspiring young females.


She said: “A sixth form girl gave a talk about how she received an Arkwright Engineering Scholarship. I instantly knew it was something I wanted to go for, so I asked my teacher to put me forward for it.”


Arkwright Engineering Scholarships are designed to inspire future leaders in engineering. It involves a rigorous selection process, including a two-hour exam, a project and a university-based interview, with only the most talented young people making the grade. Former scholars include award-winning BBC presenter Steph McGovern, who forged a career at Black & Decker before moving into business journalism.


“I didn’t take anything related to engineering when I chose my GCSE options so I wasn’t sure how I would do,” she added. “It was a very tough application process, but it was excellent. I would recommend it to anyone interested in engineering.


“Five of us applied, but the others were studying design and technology, so they had a head start. I had to work on the project in my spare time.


“Luckily, two of us made it through. I was absolutely delighted because the scholarships have such a strong reputation, with many people going on to successful engineering careers with some of the biggest companies. I was in complete shock when I heard the news.”


As part of her award, Khadijah received sponsorship and funding through her A-Levels from the RAF.


She pooled her money with another successful applicant to buy a robot in order to showcase the possibilities of engineering to her fellow pupils.


She said: “It would mimic whatever the users did and told jokes, which was a lot of fun. I wanted to open other girls’ minds to the potential of working in engineering. My school was very academic, with a lot of students already determined to follow an academic route and head to university. I wanted to show that going down that path isn’t the only option.”


After completing her A-Levels, Khadijah secured places at all of her chosen universities. However, she was determined to become an apprentice.


“Of all the students in my year, I was the only one to do an apprenticeship,” she added. “Most went on to do a degree.


“I definitely made the right choice, but my parents were completely indifferent to it.”


She became one of just 15 people to be selected for a five-year aerospace engineering apprenticeship with BAE Systems in 2017.


She said: “I absolutely love it. It is so interesting. I have been lucky enough to work on RAF sites and even been to Spain to visit Airbus.


“Aside from the work, I am able to study for a degree, improve my skills and get paid for it. And the opportunities are almost limitless.”


Khadijah’s latest projects include working with developing virtual reality technology and a type of solar-powered satellite.


She has also become a STEM ambassador, which included promoting the possibilities of the sector to new Arkwright scholars and schoolgirls.


She said: “It doesn’t matter who you are or your background, you can become anything you want to be if you are committed and work hard. I believe many more girls would enjoy a career in engineering if they fully understood what it is really about.”