My engineering career led me to write books encouraging children into STEM

Kerrine Bryan is an award-winning engineer and founder of Butterfly Books, which publishes stories for children dispelling myths around certain careers.

K Bryan, engineering

My grandparents moved to England from Jamaica in the 50s – part of the Windrush Generation. They settled here, worked hard and had seven children – including my mother. I was born and bred in Birmingham.

Being one of the very few black children in school, my mother always told me that I would need to work twice as hard to get half the success of my friends. This thought has stayed with me throughout my life and has pushed me to always give a little bit extra at school and at work.

You can’t be what you can’t see

Looking back on my childhood, I don’t recall whether there were any specific indicators that I would have enjoyed engineering later in life.

There are many misconceptions about the profession that start from a really early age. So many people – parents, teachers, and therefore children – are not aware of what the job really involves but it is often thought of as a hands-on, manually difficult and dirty job for older white men.

I quickly came to realise that if youngsters don’t see people who look like them doing a certain job, then they are less likely to go for it. That might seem like a crude simplification of a larger problem, but it’s certainly a contributing factor to the engineering sector’s diversity issue.

Linking education up with careers

When I started my A-Levels, I was sure I wanted to pursue accountancy, just like my mother. To be honest, I wasn’t really aware of any other jobs that I could do or would want to do.

A lot more can be done to drive links between education and industry. So many times I’ve heard children say, “I don’t know why I have to learn this, I won’t need it when I’m older”.  If they knew exactly how particular subjects relate to specific industries (and why they need to learn it), I’m sure it would improve interest and concentration at school.

Read more: Why we need more women in tech

Personally, I don’t think I ever gave much thought at school to how what I was learning would be relevant to a job or profession.

I remember the career advisors saying I was good at maths and science but didn’t recommend me studying science at A-Level due to the low pass rate. Accountancy seemed like the perfect job for someone like me who enjoyed maths, so I ended up studying statistics, German and economics at A-Level instead.

Discovering engineering

It was my maths teacher, halfway through my A-Levels, who suggested I try out an engineering residential at Glamorgan University. It was part of a scheme, now run by the Engineering Trust, that ran workshops covering various areas of engineering, showing what the degree course entailed and how the studies applied to the real world.

I enjoyed it so much that I enrolled on their engineering education scheme, which involved a group-engineering project for a company with support from the local university.

After a year’s experience in the industry, I decided to shelve my plans to become an accountant to pursue a degree in engineering.

Work to do on equality

My career started at a large oil and gas contractor on a graduate scheme directly after finishing my four-year Masters degree in electronic and electrical engineering with language.

Although there were very few women engineers around, I think I was quite ‘lucky’. It feels a bit awkward to say that, but it’s a prime indicator of the times we are currently living in; that, despite all the social progress that’s been made in the last hundred years – in terms of equality, diversity and acceptance of people from all walks of life and persuasions – there is still a lot of work to be done to stamp out bias and prejudice in the workplace.

My male peers and colleagues were very supportive and encouraging. Many of them, in fact, had commented on how they really respected professional female engineers more for making it through all of the barriers that existed, and still do exist, for women going into STEM careers.

It was only during a work placement when I was 18 that I had an uncomfortable situation where a senior member of staff said that I looked ‘sexy in overalls’.

What I love about the job

I love what I do. Seeing a project from initial design through to the end product is a great feeling. Sometimes when flying over Kent on a good day, I can see the LNG import terminal, and I remember when it all existed as just an idea on paper a few years back.

Misconceptions about engineering

Remembering the misconceptions and lack of knowledge about engineering as a profession when I was at school, I decided to volunteer to do talks about my job across the country to children.

It was then that I got the idea to develop a range of children’s books that could tackle some of these inherent misconceptions. I saw it as a good way of communicating to children a positive message about all kinds of professions, especially STEM careers that are suffering skill gaps and diversity issues.

It’s important both children and parents understand that these jobs are available and accessible to them – no matter what gender they are or what background they come from – and that the opportunity is there for the taking if they apply themselves, work hard and want it enough. The world is their oyster.

Becoming a publisher

I didn’t start the books for a while after having the initial idea. It was when a close friend lost her battle with cancer that I thought, “I have to do this thing. I’ve wanted to do this for years. No more excuses.”

With my younger brother Jason supporting me, we set up Butterfly Books. The butterfly is a symbol of transformation and enterprise, and we felt that it perfectly encapsulated the venture’s core purpose.

The ultimate vision is to create books that cover all careers that are suffering skills gaps, gender (and any other) bias issues and perception issues. I hope that they will be used as a teaching resource in multiple schools so that as many children as possible are exposed to the books, showing them the opportunities available to them and eventually helping to close skills gaps and reduce gender bias in professions.

Running a business alongside a demanding career has immense challenges, especially as you have to work on the venture outside of normal business hours. But with technology, it’s possible – and I learnt that we normally have more time to devote to our passions than we realise.

Our first book, My Mummy is an Engineer, is dedicated to my friend Satori. She lived life to the max and did the things she wanted to do. As her father said, “It’s about quality of life, not quantity”.

Leaving a legacy

I’ve recently become a mother to a little girl, and this has really enhanced my sense of purpose in wanting to leave a positive and lasting legacy, not just for her – but also for all children of her generation and for future generations to come.

By the time she enters the working world, I am confident that industries currently lacking diversity on every level, will be fewer than today.

Progress is being made, but I don’t think the job will ever be finished. It takes a persistent combination of education and experience to bring down barriers and dismantle antiquated systems of working that cause inequality and bias.

My advice

My advice to children, young people and especially young girls looking to get into a STEM career like engineering? Expose yourself to as much as you can to all that’s related to your field of interest. Immerse yourself. Attend courses and placements, open days and talks. Call companies that you’re interested in and ask if they do tours and visits of the workplace.

The Institution Of Engineering & Technology (IET) has many events throughout the year, which are worth checking out, and you can join the organisation as a student member too. Most importantly, never give up. There will, of course, be setbacks.

But so long as you stay strong-willed and learn from these quickly, you’ll be able to take positive steps forward to succeed in an exciting career that can solve genuine human problems, innovate and change the world for the better.

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