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Kate Barnard – INWED 2023

In this Women in Engineering series CFMS speaks to female pioneers from across the engineering industry to celebrate their achievements, unlock valuable insight into how best to diversify the industry, as well as inspire the next generation of budding engineers.

Introducing Kate Barnard, the Founder and Director of a group of rapidly growing and successful companies dedicated to driving science, innovation, and sustainability. Kate also holds Non-Executive Director positions for Syndem.

Kate is an accomplished Professional Chartered Engineer, with a degree in Mechanical Engineering. She combines technical prowess with entrepreneurial skills, cultivated over two decades as a manager in the engineering and technology group at Rolls-Royce. She is a co-founder of Enjoy the Air, driving efforts to understand and improve air quality to reduce health inequalities. She also created and launched the HALO (healthy air level objectives) trademarked certification.

Kate holds a Fellowship with the Women’s Engineering Society, the Association of Project Management and the Faculty of Engineering at the University of Nottingham. She actively contributes as an Honorary Fellow for the Institution of Mechanical Engineers and serves as a member of their Strategy Board. Additionally, Kate is a published author and a Liveryman of the Worshipful Company of Engineers.

Kate brings a unique perspective and expertise in business growth, financial modelling and grant environment. She possesses a deep passion for positioning the UK as a science superpower and is driven to make a positive impact for the greater good.

What sparked your interest in engineering? Can you describe the moment you realised this was a field you’d like to pursue?

I hadn’t come across engineering until I was 18-years-old and enrolled in a foundation course. Despite not performing well in my A-levels, by some fortunate coincidence (which remains a mystery to me), I was offered a place in a foundation year for an HR degree, where the first semester included coursework with the engineering programme. To my surprise, I was informed I had the potential to be a top student in the engineering cohort and was encouraged to consider pursuing it as a career – little did I know that this moment would shape my future.

Engineering is considered to be an intense field of study, what are some of the challenges you faced whilst you were studying? Did you ever experience any uncertainty that this was the path for you?

Engineering is a discipline that demands rigorous dedication; it relies heavily on strong analytical skills and a solid foundation in mathematics and science. Some of the challenges engineering students may face includes managing heavy workloads, keeping up with the fast pace of coursework, and mastering complex technical concepts.

As an engineering student, I often had to work on group projects, which can be challenging with a need to coordinate with teammates who have different schedules, work styles, and levels of motivation. Additionally, engineering programmes often require a significant amount of time spent in labs, which can be stressful and require careful attention to safety protocols.

It’s not uncommon for students, regardless of their major, to experience uncertainty about their chosen path. However, I believe that navigating uncertainty is a natural part of the career exploration process! I joined Rolls-Royce on their graduate programme and stayed for over two decades experiencing a lot.

Can you describe some of the challenges you faced when you joined the workforce as a junior engineer? And do you think the junior engineers today face the same challenges?

I think one of the main challenges for junior engineers is adjusting to the environment and learning the company’s processes and procedures. They need to learn how to navigate office politics, understand the culture and expectations, and work effectively with colleagues from different backgrounds and areas of expertise.

What is it like to be a woman in engineering? Do you feel that your gender gives you a different perspective and experience from your male counterparts?

Women in engineering often face unique challenges in a male-dominated field, the ramifications of which I’ve felt mildly throughout my engineering career. In my opinion, the biggest difference is the way we think.

I am of the firm opinion that we approach problems differently than our male counterparts, and our unique experiences and perspectives can lead to innovative solutions. Encouraging diversity in all of its forms can lead to better outcomes for everyone. It’s important to address the barriers faced and work towards creating a more inclusive and supportive environment for all engineers. In my experience, this can involve promoting diversity and inclusion initiatives, challenging stereotypes and biases, and creating opportunities for mentorship and networking.

What advice do you have for women interested in engineering?

Being a woman in engineering can be challenging, although I have found the world of entrepreneurship harder. Why? Because in engineering you are surrounded by people who are all aligned in your understanding. In the world of entrepreneurship, there are few engineers, cross sectors and a complete mix of business language as a result. This is where I have felt like a techy geek! Breaking new ground can be exhilarating, but it can also be daunting to be the first or only woman in a particular role or industry. Would I do it again? Damn right I would, all of it!!

Based on your experience, what advice might you give to your school-age self?

The best job is the one you haven’t found yet. Grades aren’t everything, remember education measures how you get to the top of the tree, whether you are a goldfish in a bowl or a monkey. Look at your childhood toys, the way you approach problems and how you see things. Is it different to others? Are you a leader, solitary or prefer to be in a team? These are all the things that will help you.

There’s an element of serendipity but also in the words of Gary Player, ‘the harder I try the luckier I become’.

Participate in extracurricular activities: join clubs or organisations that align with your interests in engineering, such as robotics or coding clubs. This allows you to explore your interests and build skills outside of the classroom.

Seek out mentorship: look for opportunities to connect with professionals, through internships, job shadowing, or mentorship programs. These individuals can offer valuable advice and guidance as you navigate your career. I’ve only just discovered that engineering is one of the areas where you don’t pay for mentorship.

Find professional institutions, they help immensely even at school age. I’ve been a member of the IMechE (Institution of Mechanical Engineers) since 1995 – I’ve run the young members regionally and nationally, I even met my husband through it. I also serve on the manufacturing excellence board, received mentorship and been a mentor myself.

What more do you think needs to be done at an earlier age to cultivate girls’ interest in engineering?

    1. Encourage girls to explore STEM fields: It’s important to introduce girls to STEM at an early age. This can be done through interactive educational programmes, summer camps, and workshops that expose them to these fields in a fun and engaging way.
    2. Provide role models: Girls need to see women who are successful in engineering and STEM fields. This can be achieved through mentorship programmes, visits from female engineers to schools and sharing stories of successful women in engineering.
    3. Address gender stereotypes: Gender stereotypes can discourage girls from pursuing careers in STEM fields. Teachers, parents, and mentors should actively work to challenge these stereotypes and encourage girls to explore their interests.
    4. Offer hands-on experiences: Girls are more likely to engage with engineering when they have hands-on experiences that allow them to apply their knowledge practically. This can be achieved through robotics clubs, engineering camps, and other programmes that offer opportunities to design and build.
    5. Train the teachers: If a poet goes and visits a school, the teachers often pick it up and create a week of activities. In my experience, if I go in and run a STEM activity, the teachers are as fascinated as the kids. Yet the rest of the week is about poetry as they don’t know how to carry it on!

By taking these steps, I feel we can encourage more girls to pursue careers in engineering and create a more diverse and inclusive workforce in STEM fields.

Do you think the sector is doing enough to address gender imbalance within the industry?

The engineering sector in the UK is aware of the gender imbalance and has made efforts to address it in recent years. However, I feel there is still a long way to go because, in some ways, there’s still a lack of knowledge about how to truly achieve gender equality.

Plus, this drive isn’t starting early enough. The crux of the problem is that by year 6, most kids have an idea of what they want to do, so it’s already too late. The problem may be hard and complex, but we need to start working with kids a lot younger.

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