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Victoria Cole, Head of Flight Physics and Capability at Airbus

Mother of two Victoria Cole doesn’t have a degree in a STEAM subject — but that didn’t stop her becoming a team leader for a global aeronautical company. Don’t believe the stereotypes, she says.

At school, Victoria Cole never considered the possibility of applying for a STEAM career. “STEAM subjects just weren’t my ‘thing’,” she says. “I got good grades for maths and sciences at GCSE, so I wasn’t bad at them. But I wasn’t really interested, either, and took A Levels in psychology, history and PE, instead. I avoided physics like the plague.”

That’s ironic, because Cole is now Head of Flight Physics and Capability at Airbus, the global corporation that manufactures and sells civil and military aeronautical products.

She believes her initial STEAM reluctance can be traced back to the careers advice she received at school — or lack of it. “The real-life applications of what the industry does — and the opportunities and excitement it affords — were never explained to me,” she says. “What changed my mind was working in the industry and discovering those things for myself.”

I realised my temp job could become a real career

Cole began working at the company “by accident” 12 years ago after graduating from university with a degree in social policy. “I started as a temp in a fairly untechnical role,” she says. “Back then it was just a job; but then various opportunities started presenting themselves to me, and I realised that I liked the environment and could imagine a career in it.”

And so, a contract that was supposed to last for eight weeks, never ended. Cole was given a permanent job in 2007, and began an HNC and then an HND, on day release, all paid for by the company. She then moved to one of Airbus’s transnational departments in Toulouse, France, and stayed there for four years.

Having a career and a family

She is, she says, living proof that women can progress up the STEAM career ladder without forsaking a family life. Cole returned to Airbus after a year away to have her first child (she has a five-year-old and a two-year-old).

“I decided that I wanted my own team within the company and my manager was tremendously supportive of that ambition,” she remembers. “He sponsored me on a Future Leaders training programme and gave me more responsibility so that I could step into a team leader’s shoes.”

The thing was, Cole didn’t know any other top-level women in the company who had children. Could she have the space to be a mum and perform in a senior role? The answer, she found, was a resounding ‘yes’. “I received positive messages from management saying: ‘We’re changing. You can do it! You can have it all.’

Then, last September, this team leader role became available, so I applied, and I got it.’” Currently, she says, the number of senior women with children at the company is growing.

It’s not all about being techy – behaviour is important too

Cole’s message to anyone considering a STEAM career is to seize the opportunities and don’t be put off by the stereotypes. For one thing, the industry is more flexible than ever.

“We have flexible hours and smart working so that employees can work from home when needed,” she says. “There’s an emphasis on empowering people to be in charge of their own development; plus, a massive push to get more women into the company.

Also, behavioural competencies are just as key as technical ones. It’s so important to be able to work well with other people, and to be aware of their needs and feelings. You don’t have to come from a ‘traditional’ STEAM background.”

Cole admits that STEAM is still a male-dominated workplace — but things are slowly changing. “Increasing numbers of women are entering the industry,” she says. “And I enjoy working with them. But I enjoy working with men, too, who all know who I am because I’m in the minority. As a woman in this industry, you’re in the spotlight, which you can use to your advantage. You have excellent chances to be recognised, remembered, and pushed forward. And as a female manager of an entirely male team, I love bringing a change of culture to the room.”