Inspirational Engineer: Liz
In a nutshell, what does your job involve?
As Improvement Lead for the Electronic Engineering Function (EE) I look at how we do our jobs in the function, where the blockers are and what options we have to release them. This means my job can be extremely varied, even on a daily basis. It ranges from considering the tools we use and the processes we follow, to the way we communicate knowledge & information and how we can encourage innovation and have pride in the work we do.
Having only started this new role in October, it’s relatively early days for me, , so I’m still mostly in ‘information gathering’ mode. However, a large portion of my time is currently invested in the process of delivering our new product lifecycle management tool. I am working closely with my team in order to ensure a smooth transition from the perspectives of People, Tools and Processes. Good communication and close collaboration has been, and will continue to be the key to our success.
What’s interesting to me is that there is a huge amount of translation necessary between the various stakeholders. For some, the technical detail behind the tool is what they need to know. For others, the top-level context of why the tool needs to work a certain way is enough. It’s important to make sure the right people have the right information at the appropriate level of understanding. It can be challenging (I have my own comfort level of understanding!) but all the more rewarding when things eventually come together.
What made you decide to follow a career in engineering?
It all started when I was a little girl. My dad, in his spare time, would fix and build things. No job was too big or too small. No material was out of bounds. He had lathes, and milling machines; he had welding equipment and a random selection of parts for almost any eventuality. I was always fascinated by how he was able to look at any issue and solve it, innovatively, with whatever tools and materials he had to hand. He’d think of complex problems in ways that meant he could resolve them with very simple solutions. It was a gift he had.
My mum used to go to car boot sales almost religiously. She’d often bring back some retro / antique electro-mechanical object that had seen (much) better days and dad would huff and puff and pretend to be irritated by the ‘junk’ she’d brought home… but I think he secretly enjoyed being given the challenge to fix whatever it happened to be that week; and I’d be standing behind him in his workshop just watching, in awe at his ingenuity and tenacity.
When he didn’t have anything to fix, he would build. He built an entire telescope from scratch when he was 79, just because.
So yeah, it was Dad. Oh, and maybe also a little bit my GCSE physics teacher, who once told me I’d never be an engineer!
Do you think it’s important to get more women into engineering, and if so, why?
I think it’s important to get a representative cross-section of society into engineering –people from all walks of life. Engineering is largely about problem solving, and the more diversity of thought that’s applied to solving those problems, the more likely it is that an optimum solution can be found.
What do you think the industry can do to support women in engineering?
I always find this a contentious question, largely because I’ve heard it debated ad nauseum for years on so many different media platforms and there just isn’t a simple answer. I also find myself changing my mind about it regularly.
Firstly, I don’t believe it’s only industry that’s responsible for the lack of women in engineering. This issue needs addressing culturally. This means making a number of changes at a national level. The term ‘engineering’, for a start! Despite huge efforts, this term is still widely used by people with no engineering qualifications whatsoever, which means that engineering as a career is often misunderstood and misrepresented by those outside the industry.
To me, what engineering is all about was summed up in an incredible, inspirational video I saw at the IET Young Women Engineer Awards in November, called ‘To Engineer is Human'. - I’d like to see it, or something like it, on National TV advertising engineering as a career. Secondly, more women need to be promoted into board-level positions. Of course, I’ve always held the very strong belief that everyone should be promoted on their merit and ability to do the job. But here’s the thing. Most women will be at a disadvantage because they are likely to have taken time off to look after children. This is seen as a ‘career pause’. Therefore, when it comes to promotions, the men are there – ready, waiting and eager – whilst the women are a year or two behind (maybe more); probably doubting their own abilities because they’ve only just returned to work and are just feeling grateful that they’ve even been recognised as re-employable! But they are of course more than just re-employable. In that time with the children, they may have found strength they never knew they had. They’ve learnt more about themselves and what they’re capable of than they would in their day-to-day jobs. They’ve increased their skill sets in so many different areas, giving them insight and understanding that would be a credit to any company.
I think that companies could start taking a different approach to this problem by making adjustments to accommodate those elements traditionally seen as negatives and turning them into positives. Re-frame the mindset: more flexible working? (In my experience, MBDA are very good at this one, actually) On-site creches? After all, an infrastructure that supports working families, and varying lifestyle choices, benefits everyone.
Promoting more women into senior positions would encourage others to put themselves forward for those senior positions in the future, and we’d start to see the beginnings of organic growth towards a more gender-balanced workforce.
But for this all to work, we need more women coming INTO engineering, right? Where are they all? I suspect they’re waiting to see something that will convince them that engineering is a viable career for them. They will not be persuaded whilst they’re confused about what engineering actually is, and don’t see women doing it anyway.
Finally, I do know that MBDA has recently started supporting men who want to take extended time off to spend with their families. This is huge progress and I am delighted by it. It recognises the cultural shift towards men now taking a much more active role in childcare than was traditionally the case, and helps towards creating a more level playing field between men and women in the workplace. Perhaps the ‘career pause’ I mentioned above won’t be so obvious in the future.
Is being a female engineer at MBDA a positive experience?
Honestly, it’s not something that I think about day to day. I just get on with the job. What I will say, however, is that MBDA have been very supportive with regards to flexible working hours and I’ve never been made to feel awkward for having to take time off for family. I’m very lucky, though, in that my husband also works for MBDA and we have quite a good balance between us with regards to childcare responsibilities. I believe that if a company shows understanding and support for their employee’s personal situations, they will reap the benefits of a loyal and hardworking workforce in return.
What message would you give to girls who are considering a career in engineering?
I’d say there is no better time for girls to consider a career in engineering. With changes coming into place in regards to where the UK can find its engineering talent,, your skills will be in high demand, making you very employable. An engineering degree will reflect a well-educated individual who has been taught ways of analysing and solving problems that can lead to success in all kinds of fields. But don’t go into engineering just because of ‘employability’, do it because you will have opportunities to make a real difference if you do. Engineering is about creating and innovating; it’s about curiosity and helping to improve the world in which we live. Look at the environment! Look at world health! Look at the UK housing crisis! All of these things, and more, are in desperate need of attention and it’s the engineers and scientists that will make the difference.
So, be part of building a better future, for you and the generations to come. Don’t just leave it up to the other 50%.