An Interview with Charlotte Holden: Females in STEM Careers

The egal had a chat with one of our contributors, Charlotte Holden, who works for an international defence and aerospace company. She talks to us about some of the gender-related issues that her company faces because of the stereotypes surrounding women in STEM careers, and gives some insight into how these challenges are trying to be combatted and what more we can do to attract women into male-dominated work forces.

Tell us a little bit about what you do and the company you work for?

Charlotte: I work for Babcock International, an international defence and aerospace company, where I am currently earning my APM qualifications to become an Assistant Project Manager.

Since joining the company as a Graduate in 2019, I have spent 13 months working on the Type 31 programme, a £1.25 billion contract to build General Purpose Frigates (warships) for the Royal Navy’s surface fleet, on behalf of the Ministry of Defence. I have also spent 10 months working on the Dreadnought programme (the project I am currently working on) manufacturing 75 Missile Tube Assemblies for the UK Successor and US Ohio Class replacement submarine programmes.

Working within Project Management means I am responsible for a wide variety of aspects within these programmes, such as daily and weekly programme performance reporting, resource management and capacity planning relating to earned and spend hours, management of the programme risk register and issues management register, as well as leading on our site air tooling strategy.

Would you say the industry you work in is male dominant? If so, have you ever felt this has had a direct impact on you?

Charlotte: Given that Babcock has a 35,000 strong global workforce, the fact that only 19% of these employees are women highlights just how male dominant the defence industry is, especially as I would imagine many these will be working within the Human Resources function. Furthermore, I was one of only 2 female graduates, and the only graduate to have a non-engineering background in my graduate intake. Even when comparing the last 3 years of graduates at Rosyth, only 6 graduates out of a total of 25 are women – that’s 4.1% which is a staggeringly low statistic on its own.

It is, however, important to say that I work within the Marine sector of Babcock, meaning my place of work is a dockyard which is stereotypically through tradition a place of work for men and not women. Whilst huge leaps forwards have been made on site to make it a gender inclusive workplace (including free sanitary products in all toilets), given the nature of the work that commences in a dockyard, we still have a way to go until women feel comfortable working in an environment like this.

Having said this, I can say that there have only been a handful of noticeable moments that I have directly felt impacted by the male-dominated environment, which indicates the progress that has been made in the defence industry over the last 30 years. One example is that because a huge percentage of the male workforce in Rosyth joined the company as apprentices at 16, they have spent the subsequent 40 years working up the ranks to senior management or leadership positions. As a woman, and one who has not completed an apprenticeship, it means I have to work significantly harder to forge relationships with the Blue-Collar work-force (Welders, Electricians, and Slingers etc) on the shop floor because I can’t use that ‘boys club’ banter to ‘get me in’. Whilst I’ve never received any abuse or been treated badly because of my gender, ironically it is often a male colleague’s good intentions to go out of their way to make me feel comfortable in a meeting that usually singles me out. Examples of this are apologising for swearing because they’re in the presence of a woman (even though I swear a lot myself) or correcting themselves when saying ‘well done guys’ to include the term ‘girls’, even though I think the term ‘guys’ is more of a gender neutral phrase these days. The fact that the supervisors on the shop floor affectionately refer to me as ‘the blonde lassie with the shrunk trousers’ if a welder in their squad doesn’t know my face to put to my name, should tell you everything you need to know about the number of women who work on site.

International Women’s Day 2022 is a celebration of breaking the bias, how have you managed to break the bias that occurs in your industry?

Charlotte: I’m extremely lucky to have grown up with such strong female role models in my life, such as my grandma, mum, and auntie. The highly competitive and ambitious nature that they encouraged in me from a young age meant that despite possessing stereotypically fewer desirable traits such as being a female with a non-engineering background, I have no doubt in my ability to not only compete, but also outperform, most of my male engineering counterparts. Ultimately, I thrive when challenged to break the bias within the defence industry and this has been shown through the multiple awards that I have won at Babcock within the 2 years I have worked here. Despite not being an engineer, I was one of only 2 women within Scotland to reach the final 10-man shortlist for Scottish Engineering Young Engineer of the Year Award for my work on implementing air turbine grinding strategy for the long-term health of our production workforce.

Following on from my Scottish Engineering nomination, I have received internal recognition, again for my work on implementing a safer and more efficient tooling strategy by winning the Marine Sector New Employee Award at the Babcock International Group Health, Safety & Environmental Excellence Awards. After winning this award within the Marine Sector, I then competed globally against Babcock’s other international divisions and sectors for Babcock’s Overall Group New Employee of the Year award, which I also subsequently won. Finally, I have also won the Babcock International Health & Safety Speaking Competition Award in my first year of the graduate scheme.

What steps do you think your industry could take to assist women in breaking the bias?

Charlotte: Babcock has made a promise to increase female representation to 30% by 2030, as well as having a new pledge to increase women in senior management positions to 30% before 2025, which are two very welcomed steps. They also work with a company called Women in Defence to pair women at the start of their defence careers with female mentors, who occupy senior leadership positions within the sector. The aim is to help navigate the glass ceiling and build a pathway for female rising stars, and I hope that within the next year I will have the opportunity to experience this.

As mentioned before, the biggest obstacle to getting women to join the defence sector seems to be the idea that a significant proportion of the jobs are for men. Welders, Engineers, Project Managers have all traditionally been male dominated jobs, so I would hope that we as a company become more progressive and fluid on ‘female’ and ‘male’ job stereotypes, and that more women will be attracted to the highly competitive, challenging and fast paced environment that the manufacturing world can offer like I was. One way of doing this is to continue to target the next generation coming through, so that girls who are completing A-levels or Highers in STEM subjects realise that medicine is not the only career path for them, that engineering is also an option. Ultimately, if you can increase the number of women studying degrees in engineering and project management, then you increase the number of engineers and PM’s (project managers) in the job pool, which you need before you can address the gender balance.

How do you think your company would benefit for having a gender equal workforce?

Charlotte: I think it would be incredibly beneficial to have a gender equal workforce. For example, currently Babcock might have 100 employees working in the project team, all of who are from Fife in Scotland, all trained as an apprentice using the same techniques in the same college on site, and all white Scottish males. If an unforeseen programme issues arises, because the demographic of your workforce is so comparable, they may produce very similar ideas on how to fix the problem. Having diversity in gender or background or age or ethnicity will provide alternative perspectives and approaches and increase diversity in problem-solving. If the programme manager has a greater pool of ideas to pick from, he or she is more likely to make a better decision, which means Babcock odds of successfully delivering the programme increase as well as the chances of staying under budget and delivering on time. Ultimately, a successful programme contributes to increasing the company’s reputation and finances, which would allow Babcock to not only attract the best talent but retain it too, thus increasing productivity, innovation and sustaining success. The knock-on effect a gender equal workforce could have cannot be underestimated, but unfortunately and ironically, it is by business leaders every day.

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