INWD19: Trail Blazer Engineer Karen

To mark International Women's Day 2019, we have a guest blog from one of our female trail blazers, Karen, who became an engineering apprentice in the 1980's and never let gender stereotypes get in her way.


Karen Mason

What do you do and how did you get to this point in your career?

I am a Principal Design Verification and Certification Engineer.

In my intake year there were 144 people, five were girls, in those days, nearly all the engineers were male and the clerical were female – that’s just how it was in the 1980s.

Here is a photo of my year outside the apprentice training school.


Certain people, of course – discouraged me, saying engineering was not a good career for women. That pushed me even more to persevere; whether you are male or female, for most people in the industry, engineering is in their blood. They are practical, they like to take things apart and see how things work.

My father did encourage me -  a diversity of thought, perspective and culture is important in any field, not just engineering. I think it's important to surround yourself with people who support you and get involved.

The girl in the beautiful hat is me, wearing full PPE in the milling section.

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I never believed I could or couldn’t do something because I was a woman. Focus on being the best that you possibly can be. All the people I’ve worked with, they’re looking for people who are the best at what they do. If you as a woman or a man can prove to them that you are the best at what you do, they respect you for that.

My apprenticeship consisted of four years. The first year involved off-the-job training, including basic fitting, turning, milling, drawing appreciation and electronic wiring, these were the requirements for E.I.T.B broad based training and Mechanical Engineering certificate.
The second, third and fourth years comprised of placements based across different departments in the company, the durations differed, the time lengths were either six weeks, twelve weeks, or twenty four weeks.

Here I am the one on the right, in the welding section dressed for the job.

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We were encouraged in taking part in activities that represented the company, night hikes, and competitions with other apprentices from other companies; team working was always high on the agenda.

Here I am taking part in the girls team at Burnside - a competition for apprentices..

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Here is an extract from Stevenage Grapevine covering the event.

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Here I am (third from the right) with the company's Apprentice association at Stevenage carnival.

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We were encouraged to participate in sports and I became engaged in sailing. A group of apprentices joined the OYC (Ocean Youth Club) and we spent a week sailing from Ipswich to Holland, on a 78 foot ketch called ‘MASTER BUILDER. The company made a donation paying 75% on the cost for each apprentice.

Me sailing on ‘MASTER BUILDER’.

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I studied at Stevenage College, day release - the usual route, O.N.C in Electronics, H.N.C in Electronics, H.N.D in Engineering, and a Certificate in Engineering Management.

Here I am at the H.N.D presentation evening.

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I left the company only to return a few years later, joining the Missile Department.

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I also spent time in Environmental Department.

Myself with the Environmental Department.

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What made you choose an apprenticeship at MBDA?

I chose this apprenticeship because I didn’t want to just know names of things; I really wanted to know how it all worked, and family history. My Grandfather worked for De Havilland during WW2 and my father worked for British Aircraft Corporation (BAC) in the 1970’s to 1986.

What inspired you to work in the industry?

The tales my father told me which were very interesting. I also knew I liked puzzles, I am practical - I would take things apart and see how things work, and I enjoyed technology and discovery.

What would you say young females who are considering a career in engineering?

Just be you; remember bringing women into the workforce isn’t just about plugging the skills gap; it’s about bringing about a more diverse workforce where people can express ideas.

It’s so easy for us to get caught up in negative patterns, versus seeing what positive change you can make. We need to learn to see challenges as stepping stones instead of hurdles. They really can bring you experience and closer to your goals.

Don't let anyone rob you of your imagination, your creativity, or your curiosity. It's your place in the world; it's your life. Go on and do all you can with it, and make it the life you want to live.

What has been your most memorable or proudest moment?

There have been so many, but the most important impact I made was in my own family. My daughter wrote this:

“When I was little I went up to my mum and asked if I could have an Action Man instead of a Barbie. She asked why and I said that Barbie was boring and action man did much cooler things. She told me that Barbie could do everything that action man could do and more. After that Barbie did everything from exploring to parachute jumping. My mum always taught me that I could do anything I wanted to; she inspired me to be my own woman.

My mum inspires me every day she is determined, passionate and intelligent. Every time I face a problem I think how would mum approach this? She taught me to think in a different way; she inspired me to be my own person in my own right. She taught me how to fix things round the house and how to do my own finances; she taught me how to wire a plug. She inspired me to be strong, independent and determined all qualities she has herself.”

I also have two sons, they have told me I encouraged them to be who they are, I gave them confidence.

What have you enjoyed most about your career so far?

Having the opportunity to grow, life is a series of building, testing, changing and iterating, I challenged myself by going where I could learn and grow the most. Even if I didn’t succeed, at least I learnt a lot.

What would you say to other women and girls who may be put off joining the industry because of its male-dominance?

Engineering is not a boy's game; it's not a girl's game. It's everyone's game. It's about where we are and where we're going. Trust in yourself, believe that your voice matters, and know that your words are good enough. I have never let gender get in my way.

Learn to ask for things, be concise, relevant, and brave.

Always remember, you are braver than believe, stronger than you seem, smarter than you think.

Do you feel like being female has ever hindered you as an engineer?

It used to be worse, over the years attitudes have changed; of course I remember the remarks:

‘She only got the job because she’s a woman’
‘Are you sure you’ll be able to handle this course? It’s quite advanced… ‘
‘We won’t tip-toe around you because you’re a woman you know. You still have to put in the same amount of work’
‘So I guess you’ll be starting a family soon, ay?’

I was often asked how I got to my current position while also finding time to have three children. I have a wonderful man in my life; he has encouraged me, whilst I have encouraged him, he is also an engineer.

I think there are a lot of reasons for people not progressing, is being female one of them? I don’t know.

Many people have asked me, what is it like to work with men? I really don’t know any different, maybe the question should be, not to me but to the guys, what is it like to work with Karen?