Shell program helps girls prepare for STEM-based career in energy industry

By Linda Hsieh, Managing Editor

When Shell set up its Engineering Scheme in the early 2000s, the company envisioned it as a vocational pathway for young people in the northeast of Scotland to gain skills and experience they can use to build a career in the energy industry. In 2009, however, the company realized that no girls were applying for the course. “That raised an alarm bell for us,” Shell’s Gillian Hay said during a presentation on 9 September at the 2015 Offshore Europe in Aberdeen, UK. After speaking with girls ages 13 to 15 – a critical point at which they’re making class subject choices that will significantly impact future career opportunities – Shell created the Girls in Energy program. Approximately 250 students have graduated from the program over the past five years.

Shell’s interviews with the girls revealed multiple barriers that the Girls in Energy program worked to address. First was a lack of confidence. “Girls said that they preferred working in an all-girl environment. Particularly with STEM and science-based subjects, they felt that boys would often dominate the classroom and lead,” Ms Hay said. “So rather than a lack of interest for the subject, it was more the fact that they didn’t feel comfortable.”

Further, there was a perception of the industry that girls would do only menial tasks, such as cooking and cleaning. “They didn’t understand the wealth and variety of careers that were open to both men and women within the industry,” Ms Hay said.

The lack of role models for women was another obstacle, a result of the industry having a much lower percentage of women in the workforce. This significantly lowered the chances that girls would see someone within the industry whom they can look up to as a role model.

Shell’s Girls in Energy program is aimed girls ages 14-16 and is designed to open their eyes to opportunities offered by the energy industry. “The course offers opportunities for learners to acquire core skills through a variety of practical, real-life experiences that are linked to the wider industry,” explained Shell’s John Raine. “For many people, the early chances to work on practical skills and gain real-life experiences that directly relate to the world of work will provide lasting benefits to their overall educational program… We believe it’s important to get students out of the classroom and give them the opportunity to see the industry close up.”

The program focused on providing experiences that would challenge the girls’ perception of the industry and on giving them the chance to engage with role models. “This year, over 100 staff from across our business spent time talking about their careers. That’s real people in real jobs passing on their knowledge and experience,” Mr Raine said.

Abbey Thomson, a young woman who recently graduated from the course, provided her personal perspective during the presentation. She has gone from having no interest in STEM subjects to now working toward being an instrument control engineer. “Before the course, when I was asked about the oil and gas industry, I thought of old men in boiler suits working on a platform offshore, which isn’t the most appealing job for most women… However, the Girls in Energy program gave me a unique insight into the oil and gas industry and other opportunities available to me.”

Her time in the program also gave her a chance to go on a two-week industrial visit to Aberdeen, where she was able to interact with people doing different jobs and build a picture of various working environments. “One thing I realized was they were all so passionate about what they did in the industry and for the future of the industry. From that two weeks, it really inspired me and gave me the drive to carry on to pursue a career in engineering,” she said.

Mr Raine suggested three core building blocks that can encourage more young women to consider a STEM career. First, “we need to work in collaboration to create a STEM pathway, breaking down barriers that are stopping young females from considering a STEM career,” he said. Second, role models should be used to inspire and excite the young women. “It’s not enough simply to provide an opportunity. You need to provide a role model and a real example.”

The third component is providing real-life experiences through external visits. “Take Abbey – she said she liked engineering but through her journey has found electrical engineering, something she wasn’t considering because she had not heard of it and knew nothing about it,” Mr Raine said. “We believe collaboration, positive role models and real-life experiences are the core building blocks to inspire the next generation to consider a career in the industry.”

More information about this program can be found in SPE 175466, “Girls in Energy STEM Programme,” by Padraig McCloskey, Shell UK, presented at the SPE Offshore Europe Conference & Exhibition, 8-11 Sept, Aberdeen, UK.

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