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Engineering Change: A Different Kind of Diversity

Rebekah Valero-Lee diversity

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 National Women in Engineering Day (Thursday 23 June 2016) was more than just a day it was part of a wider initiative to raise awareness of the diverse career opportunities available to females across the industry. To support this campaign we’ll be profiling and celebrating the amazing achievements of women from across the industry over the coming weeks.

In the first of a series of interviews, we caught up with Alexandra Brennan, environmental sustainability manager at NuGen, to reflect on her personal experience and the challenges faced as a woman flying high in the sector.

Alex BrennanLittle did Alex know that a law degree would lead her to a 15-year career working with some of the UK’s largest nuclear and engineering firms, on multi-billion pound power plant construction and decommissioning projects.

“My past is pretty unusual and complex,” explains Alex. “I didn’t take a single STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) subject at A-Level or university and graduated not knowing where my qualifications would take me.”

After embarking on a six-week temping admin role with what is now Amec Foster Wheeler, Alex was still with the company 14 years later, all be in it, in a much different capacity.

Alex continues: “The business manager discovered that I had a law degree and offered me a permanent position in the commercial department. By pure coincidence, I sat next to the head of Health, Safety and Environment (HSE) and began supporting him with various tasks. I actually surprised myself at how interested I was in this area and the rest is history…”

After gaining her NEBOSH Diploma in Occupational Health & Safety, a globally-recognised qualification designed to meet health, safety and risk management needs in all places of work, Alex began working as an HSE advisor on projects at Sellafield and progressed through the ranks to global head of sustainability.

Now, environmental sustainability manager with UK nuclear  developer, NuGen, a role which she’s held since February 2015, Alex is at the heart of the Moorside Project to build a nuclear power station in Cumbria –  capable of generating 3.8GW of low carbon electricity (equivalent to seven per cent of the UK’s electricity requirements) from a sustainable source.

She’s responsible for developing and implementing the sustainability strategy for the project. In addition to protecting and enhancing the local environment, community investment forms a major part of the role, working with various local stakeholders and groups to build long-term relationships with the aim of improving the environment that surrounds the site.

The scheme will require some of the most advanced manufacturing and technical skills ever seen. The renewed national interest in nuclear, which forms part of Government efforts to cut CO2 emissions by half by 2020, will see the industry workforce grow by some 4,700 people a year over the next six years. Yet, at the same time, 3,900 workers are expected to leave the sector, meaning 8,600 engineers per year will be needed to make up the shortfall.

The UK, however, has fewer female engineers than anywhere else in Europe, making up just nine per cent of the workforce.

Alex continues: “It’s not new information that there’s a shortage of women in engineering. There’s a perception that it’s a dirty, messy job, which makes the industry seem inherently male. That’s where the gender imbalance has come from.

“There’s also a lack of female representation in top management and technical positions. Whilst it has improved over the last 15 years, there’s still a long way to go.

“Engineering is a discipline that’s dominated by men, but it’s not a man’s discipline. There are so many opportunities in the industry that aren’t stereotypical roles and more awareness of this will help to change perceptions. But it won’t happen overnight.”

A recent Government report estimated that a surge in female engineers would add more than £2bn to the UK economy. Overseas in countries like China, parents encourage their children to be an engineer, which has helped the superpower deliver some of the largest and most-ambitious engineering feats.

A diverse talent pool is vital to our country’s ability to keep up with the rest of the world. But for Alex, it isn’t all about the STEM route.

“My biggest piece of advice to any young female is to study subjects that you’re interested in and passionate about,” explains Alex. “There will always be a role for STEM, yet I’ve seen so many people work to a specific end goal only for them to realise, when they do finally enter their profession, that the job isn’t right for them.

“Young people shouldn’t be scared because they don’t know which career path to take. Even those who have a plan don’t really know what will happen. Instead, focus on what you can do right now that you enjoy – it’s a route that worked extremely well for me!”