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Our Female Engineers – Breaking Barriers and Building Bridges

Rebekah Valero-Lee thought leadership

While it’s more common to find women in a greater variety of roles than it was a generation ago, female engineers still only make up a small proportion of the workforce, a statistic we are determined to change. Throughout 2017 we’ve been lucky enough to interview some of the UK’s finest engineering talent working within the rail, nuclear and aerospace industries.

Read on to find out more about the inspiring career journeys of some of our female engineers.

  • Amanda Barrow is principle site manager for Network Rail at London Euston. Beginning her career with Network Rail over 20 years ago she now oversees refurbishment works at the station. “I’m acting as principal site manager for Network Rail, managing a third-party framework contractor with 14 other resources sitting under that.”
  • Clare Niesigh is currently a Senior Mechanical Engineer at Horizon Nuclear Power, who are developing a new generation of nuclear power stations in the UK. “This is often a high-pressure role with tight deadlines that must be met whilst maintaining the required level of technical scrutiny, which can be very challenging. But actually I think often it’s some of the challenges I face in work that are the things I enjoy about it the most; finding solutions to both the technical and project problems that come up often involves the most exciting work!”
  • Alma Eslava de Benzing current role is as a Radiological Protection Engineer for the Hinkley Point C project.  She is involved in waste characterisation, contaminated land and radiation protection, supporting the engineers during the design stage of the buildings surrounding the reactor.“It’s my job to consider the airflow in a room where there will be radioactive material and advise on how equipment should be stored to avoid contamination and minimise radiation exposure to the workforce.”
  • Debbie Thomas has worked as part of a team of engineers on a project for Airbus Group Innovations.  The project aimed to develop future technology that enables systems to be interfaced for improved fuel efficiency. “The project has been really successful and if the research is continued forward, the technology would target a 2025-2030 aircraft. It’s been such a great experience working on something that could be so influential in future aircraft design, alongside specialists from prestigious companies like Rolls Royce, Honeywell, UTAS, GE, Safran and Raytheon.”

How did you get into engineering?

CN – “I had always been interested in STEM subjects in school and when I chose my A-levels I stuck with STEM subjects as I enjoyed them. I managed to get onto a STEMNET week long summer camp in Jyvaskyla, Finland. I spent a week finding out about engineering; going to Universities, doing workshops and to the World Rally Championships where we met the Ford rally team. This cemented for me that I wanted to study Mechanical Engineering.

Following an engineering degree at Cardiff University, she spent a year in industry at Pembrokeshire Refinery with Aker Solutions and a summer placement at Schlumberger doing R&D in Stonehouse. Clare found that these opportunities had assisted her in choosing a career path. To be specific, nuclear generation and decommissioning at Magnox was what appealed the most, so much so, she applied to the two-year graduate scheme in both the North and South. By the end of the two years, Clare then knew exactly where she wanted to be.

AEB ‘My father passed away when I was very young, leaving my mother to run our farming business, including all the staff and machinery. From an early age, I started working on the farm equipment and fixing it, which gave me confidence to tackle technical things. My aunts were involved with a new hospital as clinical leads on the project when I was in my teens. I was considering studying medicine at the time as I loved chemistry and was very good at it, but I soon realised that I was more interested in engineering than medicine. I was therefore delighted when I discovered chemical engineering as a career as it combined every subject I loved – chemistry, engineering and mathematics.”

Having completed her degree, finding a job in chemical engineering as a woman in Mexico was difficult, with few opportunities available at that time. So, after completing an MSc in Nuclear Science, she decided to do a PhD in Nuclear Science in the UK at Imperial College. After a brief period working as a chemist after returning to Mexico following her studies, Alma chose to pursue her passion in engineering and settled permanently in the UK with her husband, where she secured a job with British Energy in nuclear power station operations.

DT “When I used to get up early so that I could go with my Dad to the airfield at the crack of dawn, I never thought that I’d one day be involved in aviation design and engineering. Even when I got my private pilot’s license aged 17 – before I could even drive a car – and studied STEM subjects at college, becoming an engineer wasn’t even on my radar.”

Debbie’s love of flying continued throughout her Maths and Astrophysics degree at Keele University and when she completed her studies by achieving a 1st class honours, she was focused on becoming a commercial airline pilot, applying for scholarships to help her realise her ambition.

“I got through to the final selection stages for a couple of the scholarships I’d applied for,” Debbie continues, “but then 9/11 happened and all scholarships were abolished overnight. I wasn’t quite sure what to do next so I just applied for lots of jobs that were a good fit with my skills and qualifications, falling into engineering thanks a graduate engineering scheme.”

After spending six months in a C Programming role, Debbie had enough experience to secure a position with the Modelling and Simulation team at Airbus and she worked there for several years, becoming a contractor in the aviation engineering sector.

How do you find working in male dominated industries?

AB“All of the contractors and Network Rail staff I work with embrace the fact that I’m a woman and teach me a lot. And besides, I’m not one of these site managers that just walk up and down and watch what they’re doing. I want to know what they’re doing, judge risks and then see if there are other ways it could be done. They respect that.”

AEB “I never thought of myself as a woman, I was just another colleague. There were still the perceptions from some people who would see you differently, but I didn’t necessarily see this as a bad thing. The great thing about my first role with British Energy was the variety. I got to work across so many different projects where I was chosen not because I was female but because I was a good match and had the right skills and experience.”

DT “I love working as an engineer but, 15 years on, I’m still passionate about being a pilot and there is so much demand for pilots now after the hiatus in training post 9/11. It will be interesting to see what attitudes to female pilots are like. While women are still in the minority in engineering, I have never come up against any prejudice in the workplace; it’s outside the sector that preconceptions are making young women think twice about whether the industry is the right environment for them.”

Legacy … What advice would you give to aspiring engineers?

AB “I’d definitely recommend a career in engineering for any woman. It’s rewarding, fun and my team make it all worthwhile. I might be in the position of making the decisions but it’s the team who deliver the works, and that’s what matters.”

CN “Everyone – men and women – require more flexibility in their careers for there to be no barriers for anyone, and everyone needs role models they can look up and aspire to. I’ve met some people I really look up to since working in Horizon and that has made me realise it’s really important for everyone to have someone they relate to.”

AEB “I love my job and would encourage any young woman to pursue a career in engineering if she finds it interesting. I firmly believe that if you love your chosen field you’ll study harder, work harder and achieve more. If yo[u] set gender aside and pursue your full potential as an individual, it’s amazing what you can achieve, regardless of any obstacles others may try to put in your way”.

DT ‘My advice would be: don’t let anything get in your way. I was concerned that having children would limit my career prospects but contracting has given me the flexibility to select projects that interest me and work around career breaks. I really hope that future generations will be inspired to work in engineering like I was because it offers such a dynamic and diverse career.”

Our operations director, Adrian Adair, discusses how Morson are actively trying to encourage more females into the engineering industry:

Change may not be happening as quickly as many would hope but it is happening. Here at Morson International, we recently pledged to double the number of females we have in engineering roles by the end of the decade. Currently, we’ve more than 1,800 female contractors in various roles throughout the globe, yet for those in engineering, the number of females compared to males sits at 7.5%.

Our Gerry Mason Engineering Excellence Scholarship with the University of Salford and the work we’re doing with Girls’ Network are just some of the ways that we’re helping to inspire the next generation of female engineers.

Around half of all female engineers enter the industry through a family connection, highlighting the importance of role models within the sector and we’re inviting MPs, universities and other education providers to work alongside us and overcome the lack of female representation in technical sectors. The more we engage with the potential engineers of the future and share positive stories of the rewarding careers women are thriving within, the more we can escalate the pace of change towards a gender balanced engineering workforce.

For more insights into our female engineers and the roles they play for leading clients around the globe, take a look at our dedicated Women in Engineering portal.