In the lead up to the National Engineering Competition for Girls, I’ve been asked to write a blog about my experiences as a female engineer. First, though, here’s a little disclaimer: I don’t think it matters that I am female. It’s true that I was the only girl in my A-level physics class, and I was in the minority of girls in my university classes, but that hasn’t altered the way I’ve approached my career or, indeed, impacted on my enjoyment of the work that I do.
So, I will tell you what it’s like for me to be an engineer, full stop. I work as a Research and Development Engineer for a small manufacturing company in South East England. I was brought in to lead the design of a new range of instruments for laser physics and chemistry research experiments (“Velocity Map Imaging”). For nearly three years, I have been designing new spectrometers, building and testing them and, more recently, coordinating the launch and promotion of the new products. The researchers who use this type of technology work at universities and research institutes across the world, so I get great opportunities to travel to visit labs and attend conferences. I find my job fascinating, challenging and incredibly rewarding; there’s nothing like the thrill of seeing something I’ve made being used to discover new science.
While it doesn’t particularly matter that I am female, I do think we need more women to choose to follow paths into science and engineering. This is because the UK needs more high quality scientists and engineers in the workforce, irrespective of their gender, race, age or background. Last year, the UK government said it needed to double the number of qualified engineers by 2020 to meet growing recruitment demands . Half of our population is female, yet females make up only 7% of the whole engineering workforce . So right beneath our noses, we have this huge source of potential engineering superstars that will be able to fill the skills gap and lead the exciting development projects and technological advances in the coming years.
I left school ten years ago and have been in STEM ever since, and with my positive experiences, I can’t understand why the statistics are so low for women in STEM. It’s possibly a result of engineering and STEM being so misunderstood. It’s impossible to sum up engineering in one sentence, as it covers such a vast list of disciplines. However, once upon a time I thought an engineer was someone who had to wear a hard hat or work with greasy engines. The reality is far from this, with an increasing number of STEM jobs in computing or management or research, in a huge range of environments from building sites to hospitals to offices.
A second misconception is that to be an engineer, you need a university degree in engineering. In the company I work for, we have a host of engineers from loads of different backgrounds with different qualifications: engineers who attended college one day a week or in the evenings while working full-time; engineers who completed apprenticeships; engineers who have degrees in other STEM subjects. I fall into this final category – my degree is in physics.
Diversity in the workforce like this is a real asset to an organisation. Having different experts with different experiences and opinions means we don’t all have the same thought processes. Each individual will tackle a problem from a different angle, which means that when we work together we can come up with some really creative and innovative solutions to design and manufacturing problems. This is one of the reasons why small companies like the one I work for can thrive in challenging markets, both in the UK and worldwide. This is also why we need more people, of every background imaginable, to look to engineering as a career choice.
Dr Orla Kelly is a Research and Development Engineer at Photek.
Talent 2030 is an ambitious campaign to encourage more talented young people to pursue careers in manufacturing and engineering – including software development. We are particularly focused on inspiring more girls to consider careers in these sectors, working jointly with business and universities to undertake outreach into schools and colleges. For further Talent 2030 updates follow us on Twitter @Talent_2030.