Q&A: GE’s GirlsGetSET Initiative

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In December 2013, Rigzone reported that the UK remains behind the curve when it comes to involving women in the engineering workforce. A “Review of Engineering Skills” by Professor John Perkins for the UK Department of Business, Innovation and Skills found that women accounted for less than 10 percent of the country’s professional engineers, meaning that there were 27 other European Union countries where women accounted for a greater proportion of engineers.

Previously, a Royal Academy of Engineering analysis of UK labour force data found that women made up just 6 percent of the engineering workforce between 2004 and 2010. In his report, Professor Perkins issued a “call to action” to industry and government to develop much-needed engineering talent in the UK. Now the oil and gas industry is playing its part by getting into schools to encourage girls to pursue science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects and consider engineering careers. 

GE Oil & Gas recently launched its GirlsGetSET initiative in northeast Scotland. This initiative is designed to raise awareness among female pupils of the wide range of opportunities available through pursuing a career in science, engineering and technology. The launch day saw GE Oil & Gas invite 120 girls (between the ages 11 and 15), as well as teaching staff from three northeast Scotland schools to its subsea headquarters in Aberdeen to take part in workshops and networking events.

One of the brains behind the initiative is Kimberley Kirkham – a 27 year-old GE engineer with degrees in forensic engineering and safety critical systems engineering. Kirkham had previously worked for five years at GE’s aviation business, where GirlsGetSET was first developed, and helped to bring the initiative over to GE Oil & Gas when she joined the division recently.

Here, Rigzone talks to her about what schools, universities and the oil and gas industry can do to help create more female engineers. 

Rigzone: What can the oil and gas sector do better in order to attract young women into the industry?

Kirkham: Companies in the oil and gas industry have a responsibility to make engineering more accessible, demonstrating what is involved and providing positive role models so that young women can see someone who has done it before. We need to challenge the “dirty hands” stereotype that still exists because, in fact, an engineer could be the person sitting at a computer designing the software required to run a subsea control module.

We also need to show that engineering can be a great pathway into other opportunities, because not everyone that studies engineering goes on to be an engineer their whole life. Engineers are typically logical people with logical mind-sets, which can make it a good entry route into leadership or management roles. My father was an engineer and he strongly encouraged me into the field, so there wasn’t any stigma attached until I got to university. That’s where I found you have to be a strong character as a female in a male-dominated world to challenge those stereotypes.

It’s not easy. To get more women into engineering, you have to have more women in engineering, so the more effort we make towards that today, then the more the industry will be seen as attractive going forward.

Rigzone: Where are schools and universities failing when trying to get young women into engineering degrees and careers?

Kirkham: When schools speak to girls about careers in the sciences, more often than not the focus is on being a vet or being a doctor. Engineering isn’t typically sold to girls as a viable option. So we need to work with them to change young people’s understanding of STEM and show them how fun it can be, as we do through initiatives like GirlsGetSET.

The message is: let’s not just focus on young people but teachers too. Parents also have a critical role to play. I don’t think I would be an engineer if it wasn’t for my dad. When I got to university, I found there was a lot of support, but when you look at the numbers of girls studying science and maths at A’ Level, the percentage is really low. Take that percentage and then look at how many of them go on to study engineering at university and it’s even lower so parents and teachers need to help nurture that interest. 

Rigzone: How can universities make their engineering degrees attractive to young women who already have a scientific bent?

Kirkham: The thing I loved most about my degree was the module in which we tested materials until they failed. I loved breaking stuff. It was one of my favourite modules, which I first experienced when I went to one of the university’s open days. That’s when it clicked in my mind and I thought, this is for me.

I like problem solving, I like figuring out what’s gone wrong and then trying to test things to either prove or disprove a theory. That experience at the open day showed me that engineering could give me the chance to do the things I enjoyed.

I would say that universities need to get out into schools more – sponsor students in their second or third years of relevant degree courses to go into schools and show young people how much enjoyment they can get from studying subjects like engineering.

Rigzone: What can schools do to foster an interest in STEM subjects among girls and young women?

Kirkham: To me, engineering is more about problem solving and trying to find solutions to different issues. I think what schools need to do more to encourage an interest in those types of subjects is to have pupils working together in practical sessions as teams – because engineers never work alone – providing problems to them in a project-based format that they can then work together to solve.

I think we also need to show young people the engineering, technology and logic that are behind things they use every day, such as mobile phones. Mobile phones will have started with a problem – perhaps the desire for greater connectivity and communication. Engineers solved that problem by creating a portable phone, but then there was another problem in that people wanted to send text messages as well as make phone calls, then take photographs from the same device.

The technology has been evolved by engineers to meet those changing needs. By showing young people those examples, we can help give them a positive association with STEM. 

Rigzone: And what skills/knowledge can women bring to an engineering role that men might lack?

Kirkham: Teams should be diverse. In my opinion, I wouldn’t say there’s anything specific that a woman can bring to the table that a man cannot, but every human being has difference aspects to their personality; different backgrounds and experiences that they can draw from.

Woman may very well have had a different path, because of the stereotypes they have potentially had to overcome but ultimately to me it’s about diversity. The more people, minds and backgrounds in a room, the more creativity and innovative thinking that can be seen. That’s the key; those different levels of experience and opinions.

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