Dawn Bonfield Materials Engineer President of the Women's Engineering Society
At what sort of age was it that you knew engineering was the career path you wanted to take?
I came into engineering through science, so I did an applied science degree and then moved more into engineering through the first job that I was in. I started by working in science research, and that was engineering research as well. I didn’t plan when I was at school to go down the engineering path - 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 - I hadn’t really thought to myself that I wanted to do engineering when I was at school.
How did you find your university experience at Bath and what societies were you a part of?
I knew before I went to university that I wanted to do something in the science industry - my dad is an engineer so I knew all along that that was the way I was going to go. Whilst I was still at school, I went to three summer schools, one of which was at Bath University, so that was how I knew I was going to like Bath and the university. I chose it because of how much I liked the city and it was close to where I lived in South Wales. The university experience was fantastic, I did mostly sport, a lot of sport - I was in the national Volleyball team for Wales. And I played netball, I played squash, a lot of sport and a lot of study. It was a really full-on and fantastic time of my life.
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 then I just did not manage to go back in after my third child. That was the biggest stumbling block of my career. Until that point, I had had a good, progressive career and enjoyed it. I have 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 during National Women in Engineering Day and you spoke of the “barriers” that society puts in the way of women who are considering an engineering career - what is it, do you think, that makes those women who do pursue a career in engineering overcome these societal barriers?
Well, I’m a very big supporter of the work that has been done for the Five Tribes research study. I don’t know if you are familiar with the work, but it 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 that the women that 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 the parents might not know anything about it or if there’s no careers teacher. I know that they will find their own way through.
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 that women are missing out on all these opportunities because they don’t realise that that is what they are going to be a part of.
The WES will be celebrating its 100th anniversary in 2019 - how do you think both women’s place in engineering and the Society itself will change in those four years?
I hope that we will see more of a step change in those four years. I am currently leading a commission for the president of the ICE (the Institution of Civil Engineers), on diversity in engineering and I’m calling it 'Disruptive Diversity'. I’m trying my best to recommend that we take constructive steps because the thing that is happening now is that we’re relying on an incremental change in the right direction and actually what we’re getting, rather than that, is no change at all. In the case of men, we are actually getting fewer men coming into engineering, so we are really, really struggling and we need something dramatically different. I’m hoping that in the next four years we won’t continue with an incremental shift and we will make a much bigger change. One of the changes I am working on at the moment (and the reports are out in October) will be the use of financial incentives to encourage more people to be doing degrees in subjects where we are short of people, for example, nursing and engineering. We need to begin incentivising young people so they will take up these careers, and it is these kinds of disruptions, through the 'disruptive route', that I am hoping will get more people going down the engineering route.
How have you found the WES memberships change between your starting there in 2011 and the present?
We’ve got a lot more corporate members than we did before - in the few years preceding 2011, we had very few company members and income hasn’t come from that space particularly, whereas now it forms the majority of our income. With regards to individual members, we have got a lot more students, which is through our student conference, so the average age range has come down. But we find it quite difficult to encourage people to join us as individuals because economically it’s been quite a tough time. We have had growth come from the student sector, but corporate members are where we have had the biggest growth and that's a good thing as each corporate member brings with them 20 or so individual members. This has enabled us to keep our membership numbers, and we are even growing steadily, which is positive.
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 intrustion 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 the sort of things I’m reading at the moment, 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? If not, why?
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 can apply to any career and you would like to pass on?
Just be ambitious and 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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Born in Lancashire
King Henry VIII Comprehensive School, South Wales
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), Harwell
After Graduation: Citroen Research Centre, Paris
Research Department of British Aerospace, Bristol
Institute of Materials, Minerals and Mining (IOM3), London
Women's Engineering Society (WES), Stevenage
Dawn Bonfield assures us that the future has never been brighter for engineers - read our Q&A below to find out more about the nation's call for women, the challenges of childcare and how you can change the world.
And what did we learn from Dawn?
You don't have to do an engineering degree to be an engineer - nor do you have to know engineering is what you want to do from college
When following such a progressive career path, childcare can be a major stumbling block - this isn't to say that if you fancy kids in the future, you should steer clear - childcare is an issue across any career, but Dawn has had particularly experience with it's current pitfalls
Engineering is a career that helps you to influence the world and make a change - plus, there is a demand for engineers, as the future holds technological change and issues will arise with that that will need talented young people to deal with
Although it is a difficult time for engineering, people in the career are working hard to improve that and improvements are being seen - the number of engineers coming out of university is dropping, but this is being combatted by various techniques
"Just be confident to be yourself in whatever you do"
What is a Materials Engineer?
A materials engineer's main responsibility is to research materials, and use their findings to develop existing materials. Other responsibilties will depend vastly on the employer, but all will have a complex knowledge of the structure and properties of certain materials, including glass, rubber, metals and plastics.
"I feel that women are missing out on all these opportunities because they don’t realise that that is what they are going to be a part of"
"You can make change happen"
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