Our Submarines Business Integration Director, Vicki Saward, shares her views on the importance of engaging young people with maths and science.
Vicki loved maths at school and university, and decided to do her D.Phil (or PHD as it is otherwise known) in mathematics at Oxford University. Now she is Business Integration Director at BAE Systems Submarines and is in charge of over 5,500 people who design, build and test submarines – some of the world's most complex engineering challenges. Here, she offers her views on the importance of engaging young people with maths and science.
I studied at the Oxford Centre for Industrial Applied Mathematics after finishing my degree – a department run by a woman at the time. Looking back this was probably the first time I'd been in a large environment where there were no barriers – perceived or otherwise – to anyone studying there. It was diverse; around a quarter of the students were women, which was an unusually high proportion at the time. When I studied mathematics as an undergraduate, less than 10 per cent of my study group was female so the make-up felt quite different.
Now I am in a senior role working for a company that is constantly advancing its technology, skills and capabilities, the need to create a diverse, forward thinking workforce continues. My sector, engineering and advanced technology, shares with many other sectors the challenge of attracting more young people. We have to battle the UK’s 'engineer' stereotype that conjures up ideas of mechanics rather than the more creative associations we see elsewhere in the world – such as in France, where the term 'engineer' translates as 'ingenuity'.
As a result, I feel a weight of responsibility to create a climate where female engineers, scientists and mathematicians can succeed and, importantly, have the confidence to fulfil their potential. These women are incredibly important, not only for the vital contribution they make to our customers but because they will also (often unwittingly) become role models and inspire younger generations.
Research shows that up to the age of 10, boys and girls are equally interested in subjects like maths and science but this declines as they reach teenage years. There's a real need to help young people see the merit in studying these subjects before they reach 14 and their minds are set. If they can see how subjects like maths and science can be used in everyday life, it can have a big impact on the choices they make.
Another challenge is the perception that maths and science are too difficult for young people to excel in. Evidence suggests both parents and teachers often try to put students off studying such subjects as they think it is easier to achieve top grades in other subjects. We need to tackle this.
One way to correct these misconceptions is to demonstrate how valuable slightly lower grades in these subjects are and how far these subjects can get you. I'm still in touch with some of my Professors from Oxford and one recently asked me to offer my perspective on how both maths and mathematicians can benefit the manufacturing industry. I'm very aware that subjects like maths and science need to be brought to life so I agreed and recently delivered a talk for the Royal Society based on my own experiences.
I have been fortunate to carve out an exciting career – but one you may not automatically connect with mathematics. Before joining the Submarines business I was working in a different area of defence - cyber security for BAE Systems Applied Intelligence. Here, I applied my knowledge and skills studying and identifying trends in fraud and identity theft. In my current role, I am rarely required to do any complex equations. I look after the functions that work together to deliver submarines for the UK Royal Navy and apply my training in different ways.
Submarines are amongst the most complicated feats of engineering on the planet. To design, build and test them involves mind boggling amounts of data. The beauty of mathematical training means that you can go into large, extremely complex organisations, such as one that builds submarines, and quickly make sense of what’s going on. You can distil complexity to simplicity. Logical thinking and the ability to break down huge volumes of data into simple models that are then pieced together allows you to make things clear very quickly. Patterns emerge. These are key skills that industry need.
When I pause to reflect on my career and why I made certain choices, I know the different environments I both studied and worked in gave me the confidence I needed to push myself to progress. I knew doors were open and I had the encouragement to go for every opportunity. As a manager, and a mother, I see it as my duty to try to create a similarly nurturing environment for others.