Skip to content
ICE Community blog

Does engineering need role models who are a little less brilliant?

03 June 2024

Sarah Chapman, an engineering leader and 3M’s North Europe STEM Champion, wants to see more stories from diverse, accessible role models in engineering.

Does engineering need role models who are a little less brilliant?
Sarah Chapman, an engineering leader, called for more stories of 'less brilliant' role models as part of her TEDX Talk.

Close your eyes and picture an engineer…

It’s hard not to bring a stereotypical image to mind - even if you yourself are evidence to the contrary.

For example, there's a perception that you must be a genius to work in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics).

Indeed, I still find it hard not to recall the image of the lone, white, male boffin when I think of science and engineering.

Yet I know, first-hand, that the industry is more diverse than that.

Something for everyone

There's a wide variety of ways to volunteer - there really is something for everyone!

This Volunteers Week 2024 (3-9 June) we celebrate and thank those who volunteer their time with the ICE and encourage others to do the same.

Start today

I see in my work that creative ideas can come from anyone regardless of race, age, gender or sexuality.

I believe that to solve the world’s most pressing challenges, and to solve them for the many, not just the few, we need everyone to be represented.

Studies have shown that diverse teams are more productive, more innovative and make better decisions.

Curiosity, collaboration and communication skills are crucial to engineering – for problem-solving, project management, securing funding, and innovation.

To close the STEM skills gap, which costs UK businesses over 1.5 billion pounds a year, we need to challenge the outdated and inaccurate stereotypes that discourage people from pursuing engineering careers.

The good news is that we can all help to shine a light on STEM subjects and careers.

In my TEDx talk, I propose three ways to do that: through stories, stars, and streetlights.

Telling the stories…

Sometimes as engineers, we focus on the what and the how, and we forget the why.

Someone who wants to be a doctor won’t tell you they want to perform diagnostic tests and prescribe treatment; they will say they want to save lives – the why.

Civil engineering is literally all around us – there are so many examples of how engineering is making people safer and communities more connected – from amazing structures to more everyday things like helping to deliver clean water or create more sustainable, affordable housing.

We need to tell stories that people can relate to, using language that they can understand, to communicate why engineering is important and how it relates to everyday life.

Looking up to the stars…

Research by Microsoft found that the number of girls interested in STEM almost doubles when they have a role model to inspire them.

But underrepresented groups are unlikely to find one role model exactly like them, so they need a sky full of stars they can aspire to.

The stars are brilliant, at the top of their game, in books, on screens and honoured with awards.

Their work is inspirational, and their careers and contributions are mind-blowing.

Civil engineering has no shortage of historical greats whose designs make them household names - think Eiffel, Brunel and Stephenson.

However, of the 12 greatest engineers listed, there is only one woman, Dorothy Buchanan, who was the first female member of the Institution of Civil Engineers and whose notable projects include the iconic Tyne Bridge and Sydney Harbour Bridge.

We need to fix the balance and continue to showcase the amazing women who are leading the way and smashing stereotypes in civil engineering.

Dorothy felt that she "represented all the women in the world" and hoped that she "would be followed by many others".

I imagine that she would be delighted by stories from role models like Ayo Sokale and Priti Parikh.

The stars and their stories are so important…but…they are far away.

When people are brilliant, accomplished and high-profile, others may find them harder to relate to.

The State of Science Index

My employer, 3M, has been tracking attitudes to science for five years through a global, independent survey, called the State of Science Index.

This found that over 8 out of 10 people believe that women are a source of untapped potential in the STEM workforce, and 9 out of 10 think that the world needs more people pursuing STEM-related careers.

Unfortunately, it also found that more than a third (37%) of people who are not currently in STEM considered working in the industry, but faced bias, self-doubt and lack of representation.

A similar proportion also revealed that they thought their lives would not be that different if science didn’t exist.

So, despite many of us having a miniature super-computer in our pockets, we still find it hard to relate STEM subjects to our everyday lives.

Coupled with narrow, outdated stereotypes, it's not surprising that many people don’t think STEM is for them.

Lighting the path with streetlights…

So, to illuminate STEM career routes, you also need people closer to home.

They are what I call streetlights.

Streetlights are the friends, family, mentors, managers, teachers, co-workers, and volunteers who help people to figure out their own path and take the next step.

They are authentic and accessible. They help make engineering relatable.

The streetlights may be a little less brilliant than the stars, but they’re just as important and inspiring.

If we only look up to stars, then myths, like needing to be a genius to work in STEM, will be perpetuated.

This concept of having both stars and streetlights as role models is important across all technical disciplines, but especially where diverse talent is needed to address skills shortages.

For example, skilled trades are often critical to successful civil engineering projects.

So, providing equitable access to education, tackling outdated stereotypes and providing visible and relatable role models, like the ones featured in 3M’s Skilled docuseries, is vital.

Companies, government organisations and educational institutions all have a role to play but I believe that everyone can help to make STEM subjects more relatable.

We can all help young people to notice engineering all around them.

We can reframe engineering as problem-solving - by people who are curious, creative and collaborative.

We can share the everyday stories and showcase diverse, authentic role models.

Civil engineers literally help to light up our streets at night – now we need to do that for engineering career paths…with stories, stars and streetlights.

Become an ICE STEM ambassador

Could you be a 'streetlight'?

Do you have a passion for the built environment and want to share it?

Do you want to share your experience and give young people a chance to enter this great profession?

Do you want to develop your own skills, like planning and public speaking, which can count towards your CPD?

Volunteer as an ICE STEM ambassador
  • Sarah Chapman, engineering leader at 3M