Darina Shopova, design engineer at Envair Technology, speaks about being the lone female in a team of engineers, and how education is key to encouraging more girls into the sector.
Working as a design engineer in the manufacturing industry I am no stranger to being the only woman in the room. This was the case in the technical department in my previous role and is the same in the engineering department here at Envair Technology. This isn’t the fault of employers. The key to solving the shortage of women in our industry has to start at school.
I’ve always had a keen interest in STEM subjects. I studied for my first degree, in civil engineering, at Kolyo Fitcheto, the Vocational School of Civil Engineering and Architecture in my native Bulgaria and then went on to achieve my professional engineering qualification at Varna’s Technical University.
How we encourage more girls into the industry is something I’ve given a lot of thought to since then. It’s so important to make a career in engineering seem as appealing as possible for girls, and there are simple ways of doing this.
It would be wonderful if more companies opened their doors or sent their female engineers to speak at local schools, for example. If a young girl meets a successful female role model, who is proud to be an engineer or a scientist, I’ve no doubt this could change her vision of what she wanted to achieve. How great would it be to hear a girl say to me: “I want to be an engineer, like you”.
After relocating to the UK I was keen to find work as soon as I could. I found it difficult, however, as my English language skills weren’t developed enough for technical engineering roles - which made me really nervous in job interviews. It took me more than two and half years, working in different admin roles, until I found a role in a manufacturing company that I really wanted. Very soon I progressed through the ranks and ultimately became involved in the design of air handling systems.
Alongside my job, I wanted to return to college to train to become a mechanical engineer. My employer was happy for me to do this, which was great – although I had to take a small pay cut. Taking a bank loan to pay for the fees, plus paying for an additional 3D modelling course and investing in a new computer, meant my costs soon mounted up. There were moments when I thought about giving it all up.
But, in the summer of 2019, we were visited by an apprenticeship adviser at work and my employer asked if I could be included in an apprenticeship scheme. As a result, my second year was 95% covered by a government grant, along with 5% from my employer. It was because of this, and the support of my husband, that I was able to continue my studies. There are lots of apprenticeship schemes out there, but they are not always advertised well – or particularly targeted at women. I would recommend visiting the official .gov website for more information about some of the schemes available in this industry.
Going back to college in your 40s is a big challenge. As well as being one of the only women on my course (there was just me and two others) I was also the oldest. In fact I was the same age as some of my classmates’ parents! To be a 'tech returner' or new starter in this field can be daunting, but for me it was a pleasure to share my professional experiences with others - and give them extra support in our maths classes. They definitely appreciated that!
I would love to see more initiatives like those run by the organisation Tech Returners – focusing on women and men over 40 – helping to make experience feel valued.
My son (who was nine when I went back to college in 2018) was very proud of the fact that we were both going to school at the same time! Having my family behind me made all my sacrifices and time away from them feel worth it, and I went on to attain the Higher Level Apprenticeship in Advanced Manufacturing Engineering (Mechanical) in science, engineering and manufacturing technologies.
I know we still have a long way to go to address the gender imbalance in this industry, but things are changing. Personally, I have never felt undervalued for being a woman in a male-dominated industry and have always felt supported. My skill set and hard work have always been appreciated and rewarded.
But I know I’ve been fortunate in my journey and many girls give up on their aspirations without sufficient support or guidance. If you enjoy maths and science from a young age, then a career in STEM offers numerous opportunities to improve the day to day lives of your family, friends and society. You just need people along the way to show you what those opportunities look like.
To young girls, in particular, I would say don’t lose your natural curiosity, keep learning and asking 'why?'. Be yourself and trust your intuition. Never be afraid to make mistakes and take on new challenges. If you combine your love of maths and science with your curiosity, you can achieve anything; you can break stereotypes. The world of engineering and technology is an amazing adventure that for me just keeps on getting better.
This article originally appeared in We Are Tech Women.