President of the Women's Engineering Society
"The future [of engineering] is very exciting and I think if you look at what’s going to come, you can’t afford to miss out on this"
By Isabella Ford
Interview from 2015
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A-Levels: Maths, Physics, Chemistry, Pure Maths, Applied Maths and General Studies
University of Bath
Degree: Materials Science, 1st
Placement: Atomic Energy Research Establishment (AERE)
After Graduation: Citroen Research Centre
Research Department of British Aerospace
Institute of Materials, Minerals and Mining (IOM3)
Women's Engineering Society (WES)
At what sort of age was it that you knew engineering was the career path you wanted to take?
I started by working in science research, which was engineering research as well. I hadn't planned to go down the engineering path when I was at school - instead I continued down the science path. It wasn’t really until I got beyond my degree that I moved a little bit away from applied science and more into engineering.
What challenges have you faced throughout your professional career? Were there any hiccups or times you didn’t really want to go into engineering?
The biggest challenge of my professional career was having my children and trying to go back after the first one part-time, and then to full-time.
After my second one, I went back again, part-time and trying to move towards full-time, but I just didn't manage to go back in after my third child. That was the biggest stumbling block of my career.
Until that point, I'd had a good, progressive career and enjoyed it. I've had problems and issues, but those were often with individual people, perhaps because of being a woman. But generally I’ve been pretty lucky in my career choice.
Do you think the difficulty of trying to get back into work after having children was through lack of support for working mothers?
I believe it was a lack of going back into a career that had any type of meaning at all. I was put on a project - well, a non-project really. I was found something to keep me occupied in a corner on my own. I was definitely not put back onto the career path that I had been on before. And that was just because of probably one individual who perhaps didn’t know what to do with me at that point, in terms of trying to re-integrate me into that career progression.
The practicalities of childcare are also an issue - there is a financial cost and my children were all quite close together, so they all had some kind of childcare need. We had to pay for this, and there was a financial penalty for working as well, so that didn't help. The biggest reason that I decided not to continue in that career was the fact that I couldn’t really do it on a part-time basis in any meaningful way.
You were interviewed by The Telegraph last year and you spoke of the “barriers” that society puts in the way of women who are considering an engineering career - what do you think makes women who go into engineering overcome these barriers?
Well, I’m a very big supporter of the work that has been done for the Five Tribes research study, which splits students up into five different categories, and the one which contains more students who would enjoy science and engineering is called "STEM devotees".
What they say is that fundamentally those people who are in that category will go into STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Maths), no matter what, because they are just hard-wired that way. I think the women we have in engineering now fall into that category.
At the moment, everything we do to try and encourage girls into engineering is for the girls that fall within that category, and this is kind of wasted in some ways because they will probably follow that career path anyway. We spend a lot of our time trying to say to companies that if they want girls, they need to do something that’s different for the girls that don’t fall into that "STEM devotee" category.
The female "STEM devotees" will overcome the barriers that are put in front of them, just through sheer determination and the knowledge that that is what they ultimately want to do. I find that they are very strong characters, so they will find a way around the fact that their parents might not know anything about it or if there’s no careers teacher.
How would you now sell an engineering degree in a couple of sentences to a young woman who was thinking of taking it?
The way we try to sell engineering to girls is that the future will be full of challenges that we haven’t even anticipated today and we need a huge amount of talent in engineering to solve the problems that we are going to face.
The future is very exciting and I think if you look at what’s going to come, you can’t afford to miss out on this. It’s a great way of changing the world and feeling you are influencing it too - you're doing something positive to make the world a better place.
I think that this is something you can get through engineering, and I feel women are missing out on all these opportunities because they don’t realise that is what they are going to be a part of.
Which women personally inspire you?
Amy Johnson, one of the past presidents of WES. I have been doing some research on her recently through the WES archive and she is a fantastic role model.
I love this quote from her: “…believe nothing to be impossible.”
And this one makes me smile too:
“The only argument that men can bring forward against woman’s intrusion is that of physical strength, but this seems to me very poor grounds for establishing and retaining a monopoly. After all physical strength is purely relative – there are some women stronger than some men. In engineering there are many jobs beyond a man’s strength. What does he do? He fetches an instrument. What did I do when I found a job beyond my strength? At first I used to fetch a real man engineer, and if he couldn’t do the job he’d fetch some tool that would. I soon learned that it saved time to fetch the tool right away.”
What do you like to read?
I’m in a book club, so I read what other people tell me to read rather than what I would personally to read. But I’m reading a book called Not Impossible by Mick Ebeling, and that’s a book about change, I read a few books on change, and how change is stimulated in society if I'm not reading fiction. And the rest of the time, I'm reading fiction, but it’s normally someone else’s choice.
Do you consider yourself a feminist?
Yes. My daughter tells me I have to. She’s sixteen and a massive feminist and it’s not an identifier that I’d normally choose to use because from my generation, it’s got a lot of other connotations really. But I always have to say yes to that one.
What is the one piece of advice you have picked up over your professional life that you would like to pass on?
Just be ambitious, be confident and know that you can do things. Know that change is within your reach, really. You can be yourself and you can make change happen as well and I think you don’t have to comply necessarily with society’s way of doing things all the time. I think just be confident to be yourself in whatever you do.
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