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Introducing the Edinburgh alumnae who are empowering themselves in the world of engineering.

Edinburgh Engineering alumnae in the Robing Room

By Dr Aileen Ballantyne

With only 11 per cent of the engineering workforce in the UK being female, the industry is still very much male-dominated. However, a group of alumnae recently returned to the University on a mission to empower the next generation of women in engineering. Here, they share their career experiences.

At the University of Edinburgh 27 per cent of the engineering student body are women. This is an issue reflected across the engineering industry.

Sharing experiences

As part of the University’s drive to increase this figure, the School of Engineering recently hosted a Women in Engineering Careers Networking event as part of its 150th anniversary celebrations. Eight University of Edinburgh alumnae were invited to speak to female students, offering an outline of their careers since graduating and their tips for young women seeking to move into engineering jobs after they graduate. They were frank and honest with the students, outlining the challenges as well as the many creative and exciting opportunities that a career in engineering offers.

Engineers looking around

Several of the Edinburgh alumnae who spoke at the University careers event cited positive experiences at school as an important factor in their choice of engineering. For Denise Neill, Project Manager Non-Operated Ventures UK at Shell, who graduated in 1989, it all started with a creative teacher. “A teacher made chemistry interesting to me and made me think of it as a possible career choice,” she explained. “I liked the creative aspect of being able to make things from simple ingredients. I studied chemical engineering because it seemed to be the best way to turn my love of chemistry into a rewarding career. Shell provided an opportunity to join a company that valued diversity and offered opportunities to work abroad. Subliminally, I think I was also keen to push the boundaries of what was considered a normal career for a woman, just because I enjoy challenging perceptions.”

Early influences

For fellow alumna Udita Banerjee, growing up in India in the 90s meant she felt she was at the heart of something new and exciting: “I was at the cusp of the technology boom that swept the entire world off its feet. Most children were encouraged to go into science and engineering because it meant a definite way to have a rewarding career, which in turn meant upward social mobility. I was naturally bright at maths and science at an early age and my parents and teachers kept encouraging the curiosity and feeding it, which pushed me to take up electronics at university level.”

Udita’s drive and ambition grew once she arrived at the University: “Edinburgh inspired me in many ways. I was determined to explore more of life here and made a place for myself as a graduate on the Royal Bank of Scotland Technology Services programme, one of the most competitive schemes to get on to. The University Careers Service mentored and encouraged me throughout the entire process.” Today, she has carved out a successful career technology innovation, developing new customer propositions, organising hackathons and marketing new technologies such as application programming interfaces in banking.

While Udita was fortunate to be inspired by the people around her from an early age to become an engineer, not all graduates were quite so lucky. Jane Elliott, who also studied electronics at Edinburgh, explained: “I chose that degree based on the subjects I best enjoyed at school – physics and maths. When I told my physics teacher what I was planning, she said, “Why would you want to do that?” So I certainly wasn’t encouraged by my school to pursue a career in engineering!”

Jane didn’t let this deter her and since graduating has worked as a mixed signal integrated circuit designer for Motorola, Seagate, Wolfson, and currently Analog Devices, where she has been for 17 years.

The University recognises the importance of nurturing promising engineering students long before they choose a degree programme. As a result, the School of Engineering has become a core funder of Primary Engineer which will mean a big investment in engineering education in schools. In January, more than 30 teachers from 18 primary schools attended a launch event for the project at the University. Primary Engineer are a notfor- profit organisation working with local authorities, teachers and industry to promote engineering skills and careers with children as young as three years old, through primary and into secondary phase.

In a world where it can seem that opinions are formed, and decisions made, based on who shouts the loudest rather than who makes the most reasoned and best supported argument, a little more engineering rationale could do us all some good.

Jane Elliott

Also invited to the Women in Engineering event was Professor Dame Ann Dowling, the first female President of the Royal Academy of Engineering. Before delivering a Regius Engineering lecture she networked with the students, offering her own experiences and advice. Dame Ann – a world expert on efficient low emission combustion and the reduction of aircraft and road vehicle noise – stressed that progress for women in engineering is being hampered by several factors. She too shared the view that engineering needs to be made accessible to all from an early age.

“Education is the key to progress in any economy,” said Dame Ann. “I don’t think anyone here would dispute that. However, we still have a long way to go in ensuring that all young people have access to the right education and skills for them. Currently, not enough young people are given the opportunity to understand and explore what engineering really looks like and to pursue an educational path that allows them to take up a career in the profession.”

Engineers sitting
Jane, Sara, Udita, Olivia and Sam

Finding inspiration

Olivia Sweeney, a recent chemical engineering graduate, believes the core skills of an engineer – problem solving, extrapolating from core principals to solve a new problem, creativity and interdisciplinary work – were what all young people needed when entering what is the unchartered territory of modern society. “Teaching needs to shift, as technology is moving at such a rapid rate.”

Olivia said she was inspired to become an engineer by the state our planet is in: “I was sick of reading about climate change, landfill build up and destruction of habitats, as well as reading false information may that be positive or negative. I was fed up of feeling so small in what is a global problem.”

After graduating she began working for handmade cosmetics company Lush as a Creative Buyer for Aroma Chemicals, a role that has given her the opportunity to promote the development of more environmentally friendly company products. She uses her chemical engineering knowledge to establish whether there is a better and safer synthetic which can be used by Lush, if there is a natural product which would be more effective, if the company can create products from its waste stream or work with a company to scale up a new sustainable supply chain.

As a recent graduate Olivia is, of course, focused on the future. However, when reflecting back on her time as an undergraduate, she said she has seen changes for the better at Edinburgh since she began her studies. “I have only been an engineer for five and a half years, and five of those were in University, which is an insular experience. There has been a shift though, I think, even in that time.”

“Having come back to the University after graduating for this event and speaking to a number of students there is a greater diversity of people present in this field.” Olivia explained: “My year had an OK gender balance (70:30 ish), though this got significantly worse in our Masters year, but I, as a mixed race woman, was in an even greater minority. At the Women in Engineering event there was a much greater mix of faces looking back at me than I was ever a part of. Engineering has always been popular but chemical engineering is a young discipline, and the increased investment in this subject speaks to both its popularity and its relevance in today’s society.”

Changing attitudes

Workwise, too, it seems, attitudes to women engineers have begun to change. Denise Neill said: “When I started work, I think there was a lot more tolerance of poor performance in men while high-performing women were overlooked. True recognition of workplace performance has become more balanced since then, although I think there is still some way to go.”

Asked if her professional abilities had ever been questioned on the basis of gender and, if so, what she did about it, Denise replied: “I couldn’t say that I’ve ever had anyone doubt my judgement because of my gender but I think that I may have reserved my judgement more than my male counterparts. It is typical female behaviour to reserve judgement until you are sure, while men tend to be more willing to share ideas that are less fully formed.”

Sam (Samantha) Ella, who graduated in 2010 and now works as a Project Civil Engineer at Vestas, a company which designs, manufactures and installs wind turbines globally, has had a similar experience – but only once. “A colleague said I wouldn’t understand something as I wasn’t an engineer. I firmly but politely told him that I have two engineering degrees, that if I didn’t understand it wasn’t my fault but his for not explaining it and that he could shove off (imagine more colourful Scottish language here). This worked as we were both on the same level and we worked well and closely together after this.”

Asked what she found to work, in practical terms, to overcome prejudice in work situations, Sam said: “Sometimes I can start to feel an older male engineer talking down to me a little, or trying to get one over on me, especially when they first meet me, but you firmly and politely hold your line and smile and they realise you aren’t just a skirt. It helps that I usually throw in some sarcasm here, too. Engineers love sarcasm.”

Engineering gear

Tackling preconceptions

Mechanical engineering alumna Sara Kheradmand (MSc 2003), who is now a partner at Max Fordham LLP, has also found ways to tackle preconceptions: “I find that you have to prove yourself more as a woman. I am 38, but have a baby face so that does not help matters. But once people know you it’s a different story. I find sometimes it’s easier if they have met me on the phone and via email and then met me in person.”

So what are the ambitions of these pioneering women about how engineering can achieve positive changes in our world in the future? Sara put it succinctly: “I think engineers are good organisers. They see the world as a series of steps, action/reaction, problem/solution, and can therefore definitely achieve positive changes in the world if they put their minds to it.”

Jane also sees the thought process involved in engineering as something to be valued. Looking ahead, she hopes this could have huge universal benefits, as she explains: “If I were to choose an ambition for engineering, it would be for an engineering attitude to become more valued in society. By its very nature, engineering involves compromises in reaching a solution, while basing the process of getting there on verifiable facts. In a world where it can seem that opinions are formed, and decisions made, based on who shouts the loudest rather than who makes the most reasoned and best supported argument, a little more engineering rationale could do us all some good.”

For Sam, the possibilities are far-reaching – yet practical – in terms of how engineering is changing the world: “It’s the everyday people working closely with different fields and scientists to share knowledge and ideas that have managed to build machines that will defy gravity, eradicate many deadly diseases or manage others, send men and women into space, power the world and create land and links where there was none. We just need to keep going. And maybe if someone could invent the flying car soon that would be great, I hate traffic.”

Alumni weekend

Engineering graduates are welcome to attend an alumni weekend on 5 and 6 October 2018.

Engineering 150 Alumni Weekend

Alumna Dr Aileen Ballantyne, PhD Creative Writing and Modern Poetry (2014), is a former Medical Correspondent for the Guardian and The Sunday Times. She has twice been commended in the British Press Awards.

Photos of the engineers by Chris Close.