GETTING MORE WOMEN INTO STEM HAS BEEN A TALKING POINT IN THE MEDIA RECENTLY, BUT WHAT'S IT REALLY LIKE TO WORK AND STUDY IN THE FIELD?
Gilda Sorella interviews mentorship team Suriya Shanmuga and Elline Camilet to find out.
SURIYA. Chemical Engineering Student, University of New South Wales.
Q: Suriya, you study chemical engineering at UNSW - what inspired you to choose this career path?
A: I have always have great interest in maths and science, and chemical engineering seemed to be a perfect choice! I have also been greatly interested in large production processes so I went with chemical engineering. UNSW has always been well known for its engineering faculty specifically for chemical engineering, so that was my first choice. Also because they offered the unique Co-Op program that was an opportunity for me to gain industrial training experience whilst completing my degree, I thought it would be a good way for me to actually understand what chemical engineers do on a day to day basis!
Q: The government has spoken a lot recently about encouraging more people (especially women) to get into STEM. What kind of impact do you think more women in STEM will have?
A: I definitely think it good that the government is encouraging more individuals to enter the STEM field- as we are moving fast into the future I believe we need new innovations that will allow us to further improve our lifestyles! Encouraging more women to take part in STEM will allow us to bring in a new perspective of thinking as we are very different to the men that greatly dominate the engineering field specifically!
Q: Women in STEM are often considered to be in a 'non-traditional' field, what do you think of that description?
A: I think the number of women in the STEM field has significantly increased over the past few years, however it is still considered to be a ‘non-traditional’ field for us. But I don’t think that it is a “bad” description for us, it is a different path that some women like to endeavour and I think they should be applauded for their courage to undertake their career in a male dominated field.
Q: What is your experience of being a woman in STEM? Do you think gender makes a difference in studying a chemical engineering degree?
A: I have definitely realised the significant difference in the ratio of boys to girls in the field. However, I think because we have all been brought up in a modern society and have learnt not to discriminate because of gender, being a women in STEM has not imposed any disadvantages on me. Sometimes I would say I get more attention that the boys, because the teachers tend to make sure that you are feeling comfortable in classes and understanding your work…so I would say if anything- its been good being a girl in the chemical engineering degree!
Q: What do you get up to in your free time?
A: I work as a part time dental assistant and I also tutor science and maths for students. Its been a great opportunity for me to spread the importance of learning these subjects and working in the chemical engineering field has allowed me to talk to students about the importance of it and how it is applied in real life situation! Besides work, I play netball over winter and play cricket for a women’s team!
Q: Is science/engineering something that you were interested in from a young age?
Science and maths has definitely been something that has always interested me from a young age. I have always been curious about how things work - that’s one of the reasons I picked engineering to study, because I could learn about the science behind the different machines, processes and even the surrounding nature!
Q: You decided to get a female mentor through a mentorship program, MentorMe Australia. Tell me a bit about how having a mentor has helped you during your studies.
A: Getting a female mentor through the mentorship program has been very beneficial for me, especially as I am just entering the engineering workforce. She [Elline] has given me really good advice on what I can expect from work and what to look out for. Because she has been through the same course as me as a female, I was more comfortable asking her questions about almost anything because she has become more of a friend to me! Throughout my first year, Elline has helped me out with my subject selection and what seemed most beneficial from her perspective. And because she has been in my shoes, she could relate very well to my situations and give me the best advice when it was needed! So I would say that it has been a very good relationship that has formed through the MentorMe Australia program.
Q: Did having a female mentor assist you with any particular issues that only women might experience in the STEM field?
A: I think having a female mentor allowed me to feel more comfortable asking any sorts of questions. But maybe because I am still relatively new to the STEM field, I have not been in any situations where I have been discriminated because I am a female- but if I am put in a situation of that sort Elline would be my first “go to” person only because I believe she would be able to guide me in the right direction on how to tackle the situation! So I really think our relationship has been very good.
Q: Where do you see STEM taking you in the future?
A: I can see myself into the research side of chemical engineering, it has always been my curiosity - the new technologies, new pharmaceutical drugs and much more! And in terms of my dream career, it would be working in research labs on new products! But because I am only in my first year of Chemical Engineering with only about 10 weeks into my first placement, I have still not decided on my dream career!
Q: Do you have any advice for other young women thinking of pursuing a career in STEM?
I would strongly suggest if anyone is considering taking part in the MentorMe program - you should give it a shot! It's a great opportunity to network. Any girls out there who are thinking about studying in STEM should definitely give it a shot! Women add a new perspective to the field which I believe it greatly lacking at the moment and being a part of the change where we encouraging more women to enter the field will empower us to push beyond out horizons!
ELLINE. Chemical Engineer, Sydney Water.
Q: Elline, as Suriya’s mentor, what advice did you first give her regarding being a woman in STEM?
A: The important piece of learning I wanted to share with Suriya was to make sure that she doesn’t box herself into any role. I told her that a good mantra for her at this stage was to keep her options open – which she has obviously done a great job so far, electing to enter the wonderful world engineering.
As a young woman in a male-dominated field such as STEM, there have been many instances where I have second-guessed myself and struggled to voice my professional opinions in a group. I found that it is essential to think about what you want, to begin with, and express this to people because making yourself heard is of the utmost importance for attracting the right opportunities. By doing this, you will gain sufficient experience in the workplace, which will help you feel more comfortable, confident and authorised in providing your professional opinion.
I also advised her to challenge herself and make sure she puts her hand up even if it pushes her outside of her comfort zone – because sometimes, in these situations, we learn the most.
Q: What inspired you to take up a career in STEM?
A: I really enjoyed learning Maths and Science (especially Chemistry) in high school so I knew I wanted to work in the STEM area. I clearly remember looking at the description of what chemical engineers did from the UAC book back in year 12 and it really attracted me how much helpful the profession is in shaping our society. Being responsible for securing food, water and energy for people appealed so much to me that I knew Chemical Engineering was the right path for me.
Q: Some people would describe you as working in a 'non traditional' field for a woman - does gender make a difference when you work in STEM?
A: From my experiences of working in a male-dominated industry, I’ve always felt that my main disadvantage wasn’t to do with gender very much, but more to do with my lack of experience relative to the rest of my team. This is, however, something that is to be expected when you’ve just launched your career as a young professional. The instances I did observe where gender seemed to make a difference, however, were in terms of career development and recognition of one’s potential as a leader in the workplace. The way our society seems to function (or at least this is the way I felt growing up) seems to favour the typical “good girl” who keeps her head low, speaks softly and tends to be very agreeable. In stark contrast, boys who are opinionated and are comfortable at directing other people, are considered to be leadership material.
For a woman aspiring to take on leadership roles, it’s not always easy to break down these pre-conceived stereotypes of a woman, and demonstrate your abilities as an equally competent leader. Being in a male-dominated workforce like STEM makes this harder because these pre-existing gender issues creates an atmosphere that causes women, like myself, to second-guess my ideas and opinions, particularly in minority positions. Women, like myself, feel like we need to go above and beyond in order to be heard above a sea of male experts in the field, which only adds to the stresses of it all.
Q: How have you found mentoring a university student? Do you think it would have been beneficial for you to have a mentor when you were at university?
I really enjoy mentoring Suriya and it is perhaps as much a learning opportunity for me as it is for her. Being in exactly the same shoes as she was 6 years ago, I think this has been an excellent opportunity for me not only to give back but also to reflect on my experiences in the past and learn from them so I can apply them in the future.
As a university student, I received some advice from people around – lecturers, tutors, placement supervisors, senior engineering students, but I was never in a formal mentoring relationship so it was really up to me to piece together which of these (sometimes conflicting) bits of advice would help me get to where I wanted to be. I think MentorMe is such a great initiative. Having a mentor who was in exactly the same position as you makes their advice more relevant. I definitely could have used a mentor when I was in university.
Q: 'Women in STEM' has been a hot topic in the media lately. Do you think we need to encourage more women to get involved in STEM? How do you think we could do this?
Absolutely! Workplaces focusing on STEM are still currently male-dominated and I don’t think this is because men are naturally better at Maths and Sciences than women. I know some young women who are more than capable of pursuing a career in STEM but elected not to, due to gender connotations associated with the profession. In saying that, an important start for me is to expose school-aged women (Year 10-12) to career possibilities from working in STEM. Highlighting the altruistic nature of these roles and how they can potentially contribute to society is very important in gaining interest from young women. It would also help for practicing professionals in the STEM area to share what they do at work - there’s certainly more to us than wearing lab coats and hi-vis uniforms! Stories are powerful and they tend to stick with people, so hearing it straight from women in STEM will create a lot more impact to young girls’ perception of working in STEM.
To find a career mentor, or offer to mentor a student - find out more at www.mentormeaustralia.com or search for Mentor Me Australia on Facebook.