Connecting girls with STEM careers

By Amanda Halbersma April 14, 2015

European governments are grappling with an issue that affects employers like Cargill: too few women are pursuing careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields. According to the European Commission’s recent “Gender Equality Policies in Public Research” report, there is some good news. “In the last five years, there has been a significant rise in the number of countries implementing targets for the under-represented sex in decision-making positions – from eight countries in 2008 to 18 in 2013.”

However, the report also shows the pace of change is too slow. For example, “in the past five years, the number of countries where research institutions modernized their management through gender equality plans has only modestly risen from 12 to 15.”

In addition, a paper by the European Network for Women In Leadership, titled “Girls in STEM and ICT Careers: The Path Toward Gender Equality,” states that “girls are steering clear of careers in science and technology at a time when their talent and perspectives might serve as a foundation for IT innovation and improved quality of life potentially for billions of people.”

Food and drink businesses also report skills gaps, particularly in science and engineering roles. This threatens the industry’s ability to attract top talent and continually build competitive workforces in a global marketplace.

In Europe, national programs are underway to address the skills and gender gaps by connecting more female students with STEM careers. Recently, Cargill facilities in England and the Netherlands hosted programs that align with these ambitions.

Recently, 18 female students from five British secondary schools put their problem-solving skills to work at Cargill’s starches and sweeteners plant in Manchester, England. Groups of four or five students presented ways to address mold build-up in citric acid dosing systems – an actual issue at the plant’s glucose blending stations. The students came up with a range of ideas, including using a different strength of citric acid to reduce the likelihood of mold growth, automatic cleaning of the systems, and reconfiguration of the tanks to reduce the buffer capacity. Experienced Cargill personnel, including some of Cargill’s female engineers, guided the students through their day.

“All made me feel very welcome and excited about a career in engineering,” wrote Hannah Morton-Grant, a student from the Withington Manchester School, in a letter thanking Cargill for the visit. “It has made me seriously consider a future in engineering and has allowed me an insight into the exciting career opportunities available after an engineering degree.”

Cargill worked with MyKindaCrowd, an organization that helps companies connect with student talent, and FDF to coordinate the program. The Manchester event also raised awareness for the industry-backed MEng Food Engineering degree at Sheffield Hallam University.

“It was great to see the level of enthusiasm, engagement and capability of the group of female students who joined us for the day,” said Paul Kingston, general manager of Cargill Starches & Sweeteners UK and Ireland. “They had the opportunity to work on real problems and, under the guidance of some of our young female engineering talent, were shown what exciting, varied and challenging opportunities a career in engineering within the food industry and Cargill looked like.”

A similar effort has been taking place in the Netherlands. Students from three secondary schools near Cargill’s Bergen Op Zoom operations have been visiting the nearly 200-year-old Sint Antonius Molen, a typical Dutch wind mill. A week later, the museum visit is complemented with a visit to a state-of-the-art Cargill flour mill.

The students compare old and new milling techniques as part of a study program module with the central theme “From wheat kernel into... ?” One session was mostly girls, although boys also participated.

Rob Beekers, general manager of Cargill’s Starches & Sweeteners plant in Bergen op Zoom and Sas van Gent said, “We are proud to be part of this invaluable initiative, promoting careers in food engineering, a sector we know is particularly impacted by the shortage of technically educated people in the employment market. The additional goal of encouraging females to consider careers in STEM also recognizes the opportunities that exist for them now within food manufacturing.”

As a result of the successful Bergen op Zoom visits, the program module in the Netherlands has now rolled out to another secondary school, near Cargill’s Sas van Gent operations. It is expected to continue to grow to include more students.