Mainly because I didn’t know it existed. Even when my family moved from our small, rural town in Mexico to the US I had no idea, although I had a talent for maths – a universal language I could speak when English was difficult. I only discovered engineering through a teacher at senior school who was an engineer. Her stories sparked my interest and the dreaming. She encouraged me, supported my university applications and helped me to land my first job as intern.
As an intern, I discovered many women engineers doing important, amazing work, whose presence told me every day, in my heart and head, ‘I can do that’. And yet, women in engineering tend to be reluctant about recognition. As a result, their contributions aren’t often celebrated. Hidden Figures (the film about the three African American women who contributed to John Glenn’s orbit of Earth in 1962) is rightly titled. But staying hidden means little girls don’t hear their voices or the stories that spark their dreams.
From Ada Byron Lovelace, who was the world’s first computer programmer, and Sarah Guppy, who was the first woman to patent a bridge, to Ellen Ochoa, who developed optical equipment for enhanced space image quality, and Kristina Johnson, who helped to create the technology behind 3D glasses, women engineers are at the heart of some of the world’s most important technologies. And yet, despite these incredible role models, women still only make up 13% of all the engineering jobs.
On the Nakika platform in the Gulf of Mexico in 2014
Aleida Rios, senior vice president, engineering
I’ve been lucky enough to have lots of role models. For example, my mother who was not allowed to drive and work in Mexico, but who dreamed her daughters would get a college degree. And Rosa Parks, who taught me that I could challenge the norms of what an immigrant could dream. Then there are the hidden figures I mentioned, who made me believe I could be like them. And the men in my life – my dad, husband, bosses and my three boys – all of whom have advocated for me.
The pandemic made it very clear just how much more family responsibility women take on. And we’ve seen a lot of benefit from the hybrid working model – for women and men. But we must be careful. McKinsey research in March 2021 suggests one in four women is considering stepping out or back from the workplace. So, there’s a risk that our workplaces will become unbalanced, that women could become hidden all over again and see their careers unintentionally hindered.
We have to start talking about equity.
While equality is all about making sure people are treated the same way, equity is about fair treatment according to individual need. For example, in the oil and gas business, we use a lot of personal protective equipment, like safety gloves. But if you give a woman male-sized gloves, they may not be able to perform certain tasks to the best of their ability. It’s a simple thing that is so easily fixed.
It’s up to us as leaders to demonstrate the right practices, such as being flexible about working patterns and home life. At bp, we’re facing a huge challenge as we work towards our ambition to reach net zero. We’ll need more women to help us, including in leadership roles. Right now, 39% of bp’s top 120 leaders are women. We’ve made progress, but we have more to do.
Helping women to meet their full potential at work could add as much as $28 trillion to annual GDP by 2025. What’s more, companies that are gender diverse tend to see around 15% better financial returns than their less diverse peers. These are extraordinary numbers and they represent a huge opportunity. When I was younger, I never wanted to be labelled as a ‘woman engineer’. I just wanted to be an engineer. But engineers are all about solving problems and making the world a better place. So now I’m proud to carry that label if it helps other young girls fulfil their dreams and help create that better world.