Published on 08 March 2019
Ten years ago, Bethany Harrod was the girl at school who liked maths.
Today, as she looks forward to graduating from the University of Sunderland, she has the world at her feet.
Bethany, 22, is among an increasing number of teenage girls and young women opting to take the STEM – science, technology, engineering and mathematics – route into a high-paying career.
February 21 is ‘Introduce a Girl to Engineering Day’ and Bethany, like so many of her contemporaries, is keen to bust the myth that women and engineering are an unhappy coupling.
The Mechanical Engineering student said: “I guess, like a lot of people, my preconceptions of engineering were visions of men in overalls, covered in oil.
“Of course, the reality is very different. I have worn the odd hard-hat in my time but there are so many different avenues that a career in engineering can take you down. It’s an incredibly exciting and varied career.”
Bethany, from Carrville in Durham, studied maths, chemistry, and media at A Level. Not quite receiving the grades she hoped for, the student feared she might not get to study engineering.
However, ever practically minded, she investigated the possibility of doing a Foundation year at the University of Sunderland before embarking on her BEng (Hons) in Mechanical Engineering. A year in industry has also proved a huge bonus, landing Bethany a dream job with a multinational engineering company after she graduates in the summer.
Traditionally a male-dominated industry, the engineering sector is starting to address the gender imbalance to get more women like Bethany in engineering roles.
Women in STEM are generally underrepresented, but this is particularly apparent in engineering. In 2018, just 12% of the engineering workforce was female, according to the EngineeringUK's the state of engineering report.
The University of Sunderland is leading the way in helping students like Bethany successfully complete engineering programmes.
She said: “I have learned so much over the past five years, it’s been amazing and I’ve never come across any issue simply because I’m female.”
In fact, Bethany is proving a force to be reckoned with; she is currently, captain of Formula Student (FS). The University of Sunderland’s FS team, Sun Racing, which competes against 130 other international universities, design and manufacture their own single seat car at the University-run Industry Centre.
With a turnaround time from concept to having the car on track shorter in timescale than what is expected in Formula One, it is a challenge, but one that is seen as beneficial to Sunderland students like Bethany who are in the middle of their engineering studies.
Bethany surprised her career advisors when, still at school, she expressed an interest in becoming an engineer.
“I was just 13 or 14 at the time,” she said. “I don’t really think they knew what to say. Even today the stereotype still exists.
“Yes, I sometimes wear overalls, but I could equally follow a career in teaching maths or physics as I could in the automotive sector.
“I spend a lot more time sitting at desks, doing mathematics, than I do getting covered in oil. I think we need to move away from the traditional way of thinking and make people aware this is a path with a lot of very different opportunities.”
There has been a considerable ‘push’ in more recent years to encourage and support female school-leavers who have shown interest in STEM subject areas.
As well as today, every June 23 sees International Women in Engineering Day take place, this time focusing and celebrating the outstanding achievements of female engineers. From debates and competitions to networking breakfasts and open days, events are held across the UK.
Dean of the Faculty of Technology at the University of Sunderland, Professor Alastair Irons, said: “The increase in girls studying STEM subjects is a trend we are keen to see continue – and accelerate.
“Through our work at the University and with our industry partners I’m confident we can address the current shortage. We have a series of interventions underway to challenge perceptions and address the gender imbalance.
“We’re beginning this activity before Year 9; encouraging girls to see the opportunities open to them if they choose computing and digital options at school.
“Then, as they progress towards higher education, we’re keeping the conversation open, hosting women-only university open events, giving female students the option of a guaranteed female personal tutor in their first year, giving students access to female industry mentors and offering post-grad programmes for women returning from a career break. We’re trying lots of different approaches – we have to rewrite the rulebook.”