Jobs for the girls: the new generation of female engineers
Engineering has finally overcome its traditional image problem as a male bastion to become a top career choice for women. The profession offers enormous job satisfaction, secure full-time employment, excellent pay, and prospects for promotion, variety, and international travel. Engineers earn around 50% more than the average salary and demand for them is insatiable. Britain alone needs an estimated 200,000 new engineers every year.
Yet for decades, many women were put off a career in the sector because of outdated stereotypes. According to a recent survey by the Institution of Engineering and Technology, most people think of a white, middle-aged man with a beard, a hard hat, and a hi-vis jacket when they hear the word ‘engineer’. There was also evidence that, in the UK, girls were put off by the lack of prestige and status accorded to the profession.
But that’s changing. Women now account for 17% of the UK’s engineering workforce, double the number a decade ago, and this figure is growing rapidly.
Emma Farquharson embodies this new generation of high-flying, successful female engineers. Since graduating from The University of Aberdeen in 2018 with a First-Class Master’s Degree in Chemical Engineering, Emma has worked at global energy giant BP as a process engineer - a job that she loves.
“Being a process engineer with BP has been incredibly varied,” says Emma, who spent her first year offshore on the company’s giant Clair Ridge oil platform, west of Shetland in the North Atlantic, working shifts, three weeks on and three weeks off.
“When I joined BP, I was on the graduate scheme which is set up as a rotational programme. Over three years I rotated into three different roles and gained a lot of experience. I started offshore and then came back onshore where I was more involved in looking at risks on our asset, safety, and risk management.”
Emma cheerfully admits that when she was at school, she had absolutely no idea about what career path to follow and was envious of friends who did.
However, she enjoyed maths and sciences and researched careers opportunities with those subjects to find out what her options were. “I came across engineering. So, I applied to university for both mechanical and chemical engineering because I still wasn’t sure what either of them was. But I enjoyed chemistry and decided that might be the way to go. There seemed to be a lot of options with a chemical engineering degree,” she explains.
She chose The University of Aberdeen, where the engineering faculty has a strong oil and gas focus, and found she enjoyed that aspect of it. “In my third year I got a placement with Halliburton, the global oil services company, and that gave me an insight into what it was like working in the industry. I could go into their yard and see different equipment working which was great as I had no concept of what that might look like.
“At the end of my fourth year at university, I got an internship with BP. It was during that summer working with the team that I thought, ‘I’m really enjoying this, this is what I want to do’.”
In her first year at university, Emma recalls that, out of 200 engineering undergraduates, perhaps 20 of them were girls. But by the time she got to her final year and was specialising in chemical engineering, the proportion of female students in the class had increased significantly.
Once she started working offshore, she discovered that female engineers were in the minority, but it was not a completely male-dominated environment.
“My boss and her back-to-back were both women, so it was really encouraging having that female support there for me.”
Role models and mentors are a vital part of any career development and Emma really appreciates the support she has had from day one at BP. She says: “My first boss, the site engineer offshore, was a great role model. She was always so encouraging. Just seeing how she coped in that environment and developed herself in that leadership role was inspiring.”
Emma loves her career with BP and recently won the latest prestigious OGUK Graduate of the Year Award, presented by the industry’s trade body, for her achievements and future leadership potential. She is also pleased to note that, in defiance of the stereotypes, BP’s top leadership team now has more women than men.