What sparked your interest in engineering? Can you describe the moment you realised this was a field you’d like to pursue?
I grew up around factories where my dad was a maintenance engineer. My mum worked on Saturdays, so I used to spend the day sitting in my dad’s office in the factory. After A Levels I was offered a place on a manufacturing engineering course and I went for it.
I have always been curious about how things work. In one of my earliest memories I remember trying to work out how they get the toothpaste stripes into a tube and I was always fascinated by tv programmes that showed how things are made. My natural curiosity for finding out how things work, as well as having my dad as a role model, pushed me towards engineering.
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?
Not so much during my studies, but when I first went into industry the biggest challenge for me was going onto a shop floor with predominantly male engineers and being seen as credible.
I look at the way I was brought up, I was always led to believe that I could do anything I wanted and I think I carried this with me into my career. I believe this is what fed my passion for unlocking inclusivity and diversity in engineering too. I know if I hadn’t had that social capital around me, and the experience of going into engineering factories at an early age, I wouldn’t have stuck with it.
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?
Definitely, and being female is just one perspective. We tend to focus a lot on visible differences such as gender, sexuality, race – however, we should focus on the other factors that might be playing a part, such as social class, educational upbringing and neurodiversity. Companies are potentially missing out on the different lenses that come with diversity and I feel we all have a job to ensure everyone feels included and wants to join the industry.
What advice do you have for women interested in engineering?
Don’t narrow your thinking about what an engineer is because an engineer is essentially somebody who solves problems. Once you break it down to that level it means that all sorts of careers are open to you.
I used to think that an engineer’s life was working in dirty factories, that was the lens I had for some time, and I believe it is a common misconception that people hold now. But the engineers are here to solve the world’s problems. Why would you not want to be an engineer when you’re the one who can change lives and can impact the future of our planet?
What more do you think needs to be done at an earlier age to cultivate girls’ interest in engineering?
We’ve been trying for years to cultivate engineering at an early age but we’re not shifting the dial. I think we need to explore other routes like the way we assess at school level, the advice we’re giving and the career options available. Many institutions still ask for physics and maths results, but we know that fewer females are taking physics and maths courses and this has therefore closed down pathways.
In addition, I don’t think gender imbalance is the only thing we need to address. I think we need to be building pathways to bring a wide variety of people into engineering. It is only by doing this that we will come up with different solutions to the problems we have.
There is a bigger-picture inclusion piece here. We need to break down some of the barriers by changing the narrative about what engineering is, as well as loosening the ways to get into engineering. We need to change the way we recruit, so that people who come from different cultures and backgrounds, as well as neurodiverse candidates, can succeed in the recruitment process.
Have you been involved in any programmes or work that is looking to address this issue?
Yes, I’ve got a particular focus on supporting students with autism because I’m aware of the barriers they face to get into higher education. When they get to university they need a very different level of support because people with autism often come with other additional differences such as ADHD, dyslexia, dyspraxia and dysgraphia. When they have completed their degree they are then thrown into the traditional mass recruitment process, which may be a barrier to success for neurodiverse candidates.
There’s a programme we’ve been developing for four years now, whereby we partner with the charity “Ambitious About Autism” and collaborate with a number of employers in the region to place students with autism in their business as part of an inclusive internship programme. We support them from initial enrolment on our degree programme and into employment; we don’t just think about their degree, we are ambitious for their future.
We also reach schools in areas of low social mobility, ensuring they have access to our STEM activities. We take positive action to provide access to those harder to reach groups and support those young people who do not have an equitable start.
Do you think the sector is doing enough to address gender imbalance within the industry?
This is a complex issue, I don’t think simply recruiting more women is the answer. It’s a systemic problem. We need to be looking at promotions, salary, employment contracts and proportional representation in managerial roles. It’s more complicated than just getting women into seats, but it’s a great start that we’re all trying to push for change.
At the moment the system is designed in such a way that it allows a particular type of person to thrive and succeed; we need to adapt it to provide equity. If we really, truly want to be inclusive we need to challenge our fixed ideas about how we work and where we work. For example, flexible working may be the only option for a caregiver or someone with a disability. To enable them to succeed we need to have that trust that if they’re not in the workplace they are doing the work they’re paid to do. Just looking at diversity figures is not enough; at the end of the day we can bring people into our businesses, but if we don’t support them in the right way, we won’t retain them in the sector.
Diversity is one part of the puzzle and we must tackle it with recruitment and retention in mind. We need to demonstrate that this is an amazing, creative profession that anyone, from any background, can join and thrive in.