Helen Jones, Alcumus: My advice for young women entering a male-dominated industry is ‘Don’t change’

In order to get more young women to study STEM subjects at a higher level, there needs to be a change in how disciplines such as engineering are perceived. The education system also has a role to play and it should make these subjects more exciting and provide young women with role models, says Helen Jones, Managing Director of the Certification and Software Division at Alcumus Group, one of the UK’s leading providers of software-led solutions in the risk management sector.

In this exclusive interview, we talked with Helen about the challenges that women working in male-dominated industries face, but also about the ways in which women can change these industries for the better. Find actionable insights on how schools and teachers can encourage more girls to take up STEM subjects and how companies can create more inclusive environments for women in the workplace, regardless of industry.

You have a background in Mathematical Engineering, a field that is still heavily male-dominated (out 126,660 UK students only 19% are females, the rest being males). Why do you think the numbers are so low? What are the main obstacles women face when applying for STEM subjects?

Helen Jones, Alcumus: I think it’s to do with the stereotype of what engineering is. Even now, when you say you’re an engineer, people all think it’s all muck and machinery, wearing dungarees with grease smeared all over them, fixing cars, fridges or air conditioning and, whilst there is a field of engineering that does that, (the practical side), there is a whole professional side of engineering out there that I don’t think young people are aware of. If I think back to when I was deciding what to do, I only became interested in engineering because my physics teacher described to me what engineering could be and how I could use my love of maths and physics to go into an industry where you are making a difference in a variety of sectors. I was learning about the engineering of medical devices in my A-level physics lessons, and that’s where it all came from for me e.g. ‘an engineer had to design that CT scanner and here’s the technology behind it and what happens’ and I started getting interested that way. I think because it has the stereotype of dirty overalls it’s naturally less attractive to females, that’s part of the problem and why the numbers are so low.

Leading on to the rest of that question, you do need a strong background in STEM subjects to go and study engineering and that starts at primary school. The stereotype, even now, is that girls are good at English and boys are good at maths and for whatever reason, when girls move from primary schools to senior schools they start falling into these gender stereotypes where ‘you’re a girl so you’re never going to be great at maths or physics’, so I think there’s a responsibility on the educational world, and I know there are a lot of programmes out there to change that, from a young age.

What will motivate more women to pursue an education in STEM? How can universities attract more female applicants?

Helen Jones, Alcumus: I think fundamentally it’s about aspiration and belief. Because there are gender stereotypes, girls will naturally think they’re not good enough (we talk a lot about imposter syndrome) and if there are enough people saying that STEM subjects are not for girls, a lot of them will start to listen, so there needs to be a change to say everyone can study this. It also needs to be made more exciting; a lot has been done since I was at school to make physics more engaging, far more interesting and less dull (not just someone at the front of the class lecturing people). They are fantastic subjects and our world would be lost without physics, chemistry, biology etc.

Maths is needed in every field of life so I think a change in education is needed to bring these subjects to life for younger people, and this will certainly motivate more women. But also, we need to talk about role models. If girls can see other girls, younger or older, achieving success in STEM subjects then they can see that it’s possible and we need to talk about that more. I think this is a way that universities could attract more female applicants as well.

What advice do you have for young women looking to enter male-dominated industries, post-graduation? What practical steps can they take to make sure they stand out among the pool of applicants?

Helen Jones, Alcumus: My advice for young women entering a male-dominated industry is ‘Don’t change’.

You are a woman, you are going to have a different approach, you are going to look at things a different way, you are going to manage problems in a different way, you are going to work and interact with people in a different way to men, and that is OK. That is exactly what male-dominated industries need, so have confidence in yourself and do not feel that you have to change.

That is easy for me to say now but it is hard when you are in that environment. One of the things you have to learn to accept when working with a group of men is that they do have a different way of engaging with each other. There can be a lot of banter, so you do have to build up a certain amount of resilience to manage certain situations. Men are different and you have to become comfortable in that environment as well because it will not change. I am not suggesting you have to tolerate bad behaviour, but just as it would be an interesting environment for one man working with a group of ladies, you need to be able to adapt to the situations, people and cultures around you.

More and more organisations are looking to remove barriers to entry, and their own unconscious bias, which is great for women entering the world, post-graduation now. But then you need to decide how you stand out from any other graduate. I think the way you do that is by talking about, and actually doing, activities that show you have the relevant work experience, you’ve been interested in the sector and have evidence to prove that, or you’ve gone above and beyond what was expected of you during the time you were studying e.g. having a summer job linked to the activity you want to do, post-graduation.

You need to show these on your CV/applications because that’s what you will be judged on and it will help you stand out, as everyone will have a 2:1 or a First. I remember being quite structured when I was around 16, thinking ‘I’ve got to make sure I’m building up good work experience’. It was actually in Retail and by the time I left University, after 6 years working there, I’d been the weekend store manager for almost 2 years with daily sales targets, team and cash management and that stood me in really good stead when it came to starting my full-time career.

How can HR managers change their recruitment process to attract more female applicants in traditionally male-dominated industries?

Helen Jones, Alcumus: It all starts with the adverts. Adverts generally tend to ask for everything they possibly want in that role and we know that often switches off female applicants. You need to be really concise in what you want for that role so you open up your pool as much possible. You also need to change the tone of the language used and not be quite as aggressive because again, the science proves that this is a turn-off for women candidates. A really big one is being really open about your flexible working policy.  This is relevant for both male and female candidates, but is certainly something that puts female applicants off, if it is not in place.  You need to pitch it as a positive in your ads and even positively encourage candidates looking for a more flexible way of working, to apply.

I know it’s not possible on all roles but also offering part-time or job share and working from home options would help as well. Some of those options might not be ideal, but by putting them in your adverts you are opening up your pool and you could find some female superstars as a result. They may need to work that flexibly for the first 12-18 months, but once they’ve got into their groove they could step up to be the best ever candidate that you’ve ever managed to attract; but by not going out in that way, you’re closing it off from the start.

What were some of the challenges you faced when you started working in the Health and Safety industry? How did you overcome these and what are some of the most important lessons you have learned along the way?

Helen Jones, Alcumus: Working in the Construction industry there’s a real focus on health and safety in every day to day delivery activity that goes on. It’s the top of every agenda. I was lucky that I was at a very open organisation where we were encouraged to raise and resolve safety issues that weren’t right. I think the biggest area I can talk about, which is more relevant now, is that the phrase ‘health & safety’ is used a lot more generally (it’s more safety when it comes to industry). If you talk health, this is more about the acute injuries that come alongside accidents and incidents rather than health as a whole, as in health and wellbeing, mental health, long-term chronic health of individuals delivering activities etc.

So, to expand on how I’ve overcome that, I was lucky enough to have a role to set the strategy on how we could start looking at health as KPI within the business, rather than just safety. I was able to set some key targets that the organisation could work to, which included health place assessments (getting nursing staff on larger sites to do health checks; looking at blood pressure, diabetes etc) and starting mental health awareness training within the Construction sector. Young men dominate the industry and this age group has one of the highest rates of suicides – they don’t talk about their feelings or the stress they are under and the industry needs to embrace this more. By having more women in that world, who have a different type of EQ, we can look at health in the workplace differently and make some big changes across many sectors.

What are some practical steps companies can take to create a work environment that is more inclusive for women?

Helen Jones, Alcumus: There are some real practical things such as women returning from maternity; they may need the ability to go and express milk in a room and have storage facilities. Being able to be an organisation that can support in that way is amazing and they will get so much buy in from their female returners that it will help no end. Dealing with women going on maternity leave in a really positive and proactive way sends ripples around an organisation for women, knowing they have a safe space.

To know that if women choose to have a family they will not be ostracised, overlooked or side-lined is important. There are many practical things companies can do such as organising a separate room with storage facilities for women returning from maternity leave so they can go and express milk, having a flexible approach to their role when they come back such as reducing hours, giving them mentors while they are away, a buddy programme for when they come back to work if they need to talk to someone or senior leadership check-ins to gauge their opinions. At the end of the day, companies invest a lot into training people, so from a business perspective, it is absolute madness to have such a drop off post maternity.

The second thing, which is more intangible, is creating a culture where men and women are seen on an equal footing. That is not a quick win and isn’t going to happen overnight, but again you come back to having good female and male role models, having women who are happy to talk about things openly and promote the cause of why things need to change. This takes time and in some of the industries such as construction and manufacturing, there’s a lot of history to break down too.

Having a mentor in the workplace is often an invaluable asset for women and men alike. What is the best piece of advice you have received from a mentor? Can you give us an example of how it has helped you in your career?

Helen Jones, Alcumus: There are going to be times in your career when you may need to take a step back to go for your career opportunities when you can.  Don’t let concerns and worries hold you back (keep that imposter syndrome at bay), keep moving on to the next challenge, ideally every 18 months to two-years.  Make sure however that you keep delivering and maintain your credibility so that when the time comes to take a break, you’ve built your experience and reputation, which gives you a bit of breathing space.

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