Imagine the Future: Driving the Electric Revolution on Women in Engineering Day

International Women in Engineering Day is a celebration of the vital work done by women engineers across the world. Established by the Women’s Engineering Society (WES), this year’s theme is innovators and inventors, an important topic as we strive to find solutions to global challenges, from the effects of the pandemic to combatting the climate crisis.


However, true innovation is impossible without diversity: the wider the range of different backgrounds and experiences that are drawn on, the more unique the ideas. This is why it’s important that we acknowledge that engineering is still a largely male-dominated sector and interrogate how we might break down these barriers and encourage more women’s voices to be heard. It's also important to not overlook cultural, racial, religious and age diversity, sexual orientation, and disability. Engineering should be accessible to all.


Here at Driving the Electric Revolution Industrialisation Centres (DER-IC), we’re embracing having a diverse team and raising the platform for women in engineering to have a voice. In this interview, DER-IC speaks to two women at different stages of their careers, discussing how they got to where they are today and their hopes for the future of women in engineering.


 

First we spoke to Hollie Ferguson, who is soon to graduate from East Durham College to start a new role as Process Engineer at Advanced Electric Machines (AEM).

Q. How did you first become interested in engineering?

A. I first considered engineering as a career option when I was 15 – I had been homeschooled and was all set to go to college to become a paramedic, but around that time I also became fascinated by physics and finding out how things work. I was doing a home education course at East Durham College and I checked out the engineering course and met a lecturer there who inspired me. He said “If you want to know how things work why not consider engineering?” and it was an eye-opening moment, I’d never considered that as a possible career until then.


Q. Can you give us some insight into how you became top of your class and what advice you’d give other students?

A. I started off doing level 3 mechanical engineering and I was the only girl in the entire class, as well as being a year younger than everyone else. At the start everyone had better grades than me so I was intimidated. I was challenged by one of the boys in the class to try and get a better grade than him, it was that competitiveness that drove me to succeed and he’s actually now my boyfriend!

Some advice I would give is to always ask questions, even if you feel it’s singling you out – I was always raising my hand if there was something I didn’t understand and emailing the lecturers with questions. The hard work paid off when my lecturer said my first assignment was the best he’d seen and used it as an example for the class above – that was a real boost for my confidence.

Q. Tell us about what you’re going to be working on at AEM?

A. I start my apprenticeship at AEM in 2 weeks’ time, where I’ll be monitoring the assembly lines and ensuring everything keeps on schedule and that health and safety protocols are being followed. I’ll also be able to suggest ways things can be rearranged for maximum efficiency.


What I like about this apprenticeship is that over the course of the year I’ll get to try all the different types of engineering they do in the company and then choose at the end what suits me best. At the moment I love design engineering but I want to try out everything and see – every one sounds interesting in a different way!


Q. Give your take on how to get into engineering as a woman – what were the challenges and opportunities for you? What barriers need to be broken down?

A. Unfortunately sexism is a problem in the sector – people may not realise they’re doing it, but you still get offhand comments about your appearance or people doubting you, the kind of comments your classmates wouldn’t say to another man.


I think it’s always important to challenge sexism and prove your competence through your actions – now all the boys come to me to ask for help with their work!

A proud moment for me was when I was voted in as student president across all three colleges, as I felt if other girls could see me in this role they would be inspired too.

I think that a lot of careers tend to be boxed off as ‘feminine’ or ‘masculine’ – but if I’m a woman being an engineer then that’s feminine, just like if a man did a job that’s traditionally been done by women he’d still be masculine. The bodies we have don’t have anything to do with our ability as an engineer!


Q. What has surprised you most about being an Engineer/the engineering sector?

A. I’m just still surprised by how few other women students I’ve seen during my time at college. I’ve been the only girl in my class for the full 3 years, and the girls I see in the other classes are few and far between. I don’t say this to discourage other women from getting into engineering, in fact completely the opposite: because of this, I’ve encouraged my younger sister to become an engineer, so it’s so important to make the first step and then others will follow!


 

While Hollie is at the beginning of her engineering career, DER-IC North East Chief Operating Officer Rachel Chambers came to the sector through a less traditional route. We spoke to Rachel about mentorship, breaking barriers and the importance of honesty.

Q. How did you get to where you are now in your career?

A. I began my journey in HR working globally in sectors like manufacturing, the auto sector and logistics for about 15 years before I moved back to the North East to have my children. It was then that I ended up working in the North East at CPI one of the High Value Manufacturing Catapults where I had the opportunity to be seconded and was given the mission to create an innovation centre in the North East for Advanced Manufacturing. This was a critical piece of work to support the regional manufacturing sector.


Q. What made you choose Engineering as a career? Why did you switch from HR?

A. I had a colleague at the time who I’d describe as a mentor, or maybe more like an advocate? He recognised that I had a lot of diverse skills, and I wanted an opportunity to put them into practice. Because of this I got a secondment where I was given the mission to create an innovation centre in the North East for Advanced Manufacturing.


I merged from manufacturing into electrification just by chance when I was introduced to Professor of Practise at Newcastle University Matt Boyle (now the Chair of DER-IC) at an event, and from this point I started working two jobs, running the innovation centre at the same time as writing the bid for the DER Industrialisation Centres. I think this shows how important it is to just get involved and go and talk to people as you never know what opportunities might come your way!


Q. How do you break down the barriers in a male dominated sector?

A. This is pretty multifaceted. There needs to be mentors for women and men coming into the sector so we can all learn from each other; reverse mentoring is also important, so we consider what new views a different generation brings to the workplace.

I think we also need to all be more honest about what we’re not good at and ask for the support we need. Be honest with what you can and can’t do and you will be able to build good relationships based on trust. We need less egos and arrogance and more collaboration, trust, and honesty as this for me is what’s required to build good relationships (fun and positivity is also required😉).

Q. What has surprised you most about being an Engineer/the engineering sector?

A. When I got into engineering, I thought it would be male dominated, but it was even more so than I expected. A lot more effort in equality, diversional and inclusion is needed from people at every level, unfortunately I think there’s still a lot of unconscious bias, and everyone needs to make the effort to have training on how to recognise this rather than thinking they know it.


Q. What advice would you give to women of Hollie’s stage who are just starting out?

Shy bairns get nowt! Recognise people who can be advocates for you and don’t be afraid to approach them, you’ve got to be courageous and take action – the worst that can happen is they say no, but in the majority of cases people are only too happy to help you out.

Don’t be put off by a currently male-dominated sector, now is the time to get involved in the technical advancements that are being shaped to help save the planet. It’s well paid, inspirational, highly regarded and is crying out for diversity.


 

Find out more about International Women in Engineering Day.

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