As the academic year of 2022 begins, it’s said that only 35 per cent of UK science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) students in higher education are women. Solutions to this imbalance include encouraging girls to study STEM subjects in the first place. However, this ignores many of the other issues that women face later in their careers. Here Tracey Richards, production team leader at signal conditioning and wireless telemetry specialist Mantracourt, recounts the challenges she’s faced as a woman in electrical engineering and how she overcame them.
As a result of missing years at primary school, I was unable to read and write. Many people saw me as an idiot. As a result, I had no interest in school. Like many girls who are unable to play the sports they want to, my choices were limited. I wanted to do wood-work and metal-work; everything that could help me become a mechanic. Instead, I had to do short-hand typing, needlework and cookery. I wasn’t interested in that, so I stopped going to school! I was suspended and put on report for not fitting into society’s mould.
My inspiration was my dad. He was a forward-thinking man who told me that just because I was a woman, it didn’t mean that I couldn’t achieve what a man can. He was a senior electrician and he taught me how to wire plugs and sockets. When my car broke down, my dad made me mend it. I remember being out in the freezing cold, under the bonnet, repairing my car. My dad did not believe in traditional gender roles. If it hadn’t have been for him, I would not be the person I am today.
Stepping into the electrical engineering industry
I left school before I turned 16, with minimal qualifications, and I managed to get a job in the electronics industry. I enjoyed repairing printed circuit boards because it was hands on and this kickstarted my career.
I had to work harder than men in order to be noticed for my achievements. I remember working for one company that clearly did not want a woman in a supervisory role. They would put plenty of men in those roles who were not interested or even capable of doing the work. Only after so many failures did they eventually ask me to do the job.
The only time that I wasn’t given a supervisory role was when my children were very young and I think many women experience this. Women are pressured to choose between a successful career and a family. The dream of having it all, is hard in practice.
This is because a woman may work the same amount of hours as her partner but she may also be expected to stop working to provide childcare, do the majority of the housework or even care for aging parents. We feel burnt out because of unpaid work that is expected of us and can suffer in our careers as we aren’t seen as dedicated.
Lessons for female students in STEM
Women in STEM subjects need to keep fighting. We may feel as if we don’t belong as we experience peer pressure, lack of role models or even a lack of support from teachers. However, I have found the number of those who doubt us are getting smaller from when I was younger. Having a support network is invaluable. I had my dad and students can find it in family, friends and peers. Love and support drives us to do what we enjoy, even when others are trying to push us down.
I’ve been working at Mantracourt for eleven years and as the size of the company has increased, so have my responsibilities as a team-leader. I’m fortunate to get along extremely well with my manager. I can express my opinion and those views are not ignored. It’s important to work for a company that values the work of an individual, male or female, and listens to what they have to say.
My advice for the younger generation would be to do what you love. You will spend a large amount of your life working so don’t compromise. Start an apprenticeship if you don’t want to go to university, explore different careers or try a male-dominated hobby. That’s what I did, and I have no regrets.