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Engineering Heroes | International Women in Engineering Day 2021

By Newcastle University

To mark International Women in Engineering Day 2021, we're celebrating some of the incredible women we have in our Faculty of Science, Agriculture and Engineering here at Newcastle University.

'Engineering touches all of our lives and benefits all aspects of society. It doesn't fulfil its purpose if it excludes women.'

Stephanie Glendinning, Science, Agriculture and Engineering Faculty Pro-Vice-Chancellor.

Stephanie Glendinning - Headshot

What does it mean to be a woman in engineering?

At school I didn’t consider it to be an unusual subject or career path for me. I also felt supported by my family to pursue learning opportunities and develop my interests. However we know this isn’t the same for everyone and so we have a responsibility to support opportunities, inspire and encourage girls and women into engineering.  

What do you see as the challenges to making engineering more inclusive?

There are challenges all along the way, as a child, a young person and at each stage of your career. It’s clear that gender roles and stereotypes have an impact from a very young age and we all have a responsibility to help guide children in ways so that they grow up without being affected by gender stereotypes to build a more inclusive and accepting society. I’ve experienced lots of inclusive practice advancing gender equality in engineering from industry professionals however there’s lots more to be done to address gender inequalities in academia.

Why is gender equality important in engineering?

It’s important because engineering touches all of our lives and benefits all aspects of society. To achieve this effectively, the makeup of engineers must reflect the society it seeks to serve. Engineering doesn’t fulfil its purpose if it excludes women.

What can we do to improve gender equality/ tackle the gender gap in engineering?

We could create more opportunities to work with women who are parents to explore what engineering is about so they can encourage and support their girls to develop their own ideas and interests in it. We can also be more collaborative and creative in our approach to improving gender equality in engineering, making links with other disciplines such as in the arts.

What would you like to see change here at the University and how can we contribute to making it happen?

I’d like to see the development of more social environments, time and space to encourage social interaction, inclusion and community. This would help bring people together, connecting different people that may not usually interact to celebrate diversity and create a greater sense of belonging and comradeship.

 

'Empowering women to fulfil their potential is something we should aspire to, not in 10 years' time, but now.'

Kamelia Boodhoo, Reader in Chemical Engineering.

Kamelia Boodhoo image

What does it mean to be a woman in engineering? 

It can be quite challenging at times as it is very much a male dominated environment but I think as women, we bring another dimension to this environment and we add value by bringing to the table different approaches of tackling problems.

What do you see as the challenges and barriers to making engineering more inclusive?

Generally, women are not heard or listened to enough. It feels like we need to shout to get our voices heard. And when  we do shout, we get labelled as being aggressive! There is a good deal of unconscious and conscious bias around about women in engineering which can make life quite difficult. It can often feel like engineering is a boys’ club. But for me personally, I am lucky to be amongst colleagues whom I blend in with.

What would you like to see change here at the University and how can we contribute to making it happen?

I would like to think that rather than women having to adapt to this male environment, our male colleagues also make an effort to meet us half-way by enabling our voices to be heard and supporting us professionally. It is already happening to a certain extent especially in my discipline but a lot more could be done so that women don’t feel that they always have to push against those invisible yet quite restrictive barriers. Empowering women to fulfil their potential is something we should aspire to not in 10 years’ time but now and not only in words that look good on paper but in concrete action too.

What advice would you give to women developing their university career in engineering?

Engineering is a fascinating subject with lots of opportunity to succeed. There will be bumps along the way to achieving your career goals and this is all part of learning and growing as an individual. Never stop believing in yourself!

 

'Be proactive and take ownership of your work. Help each other and extend your network.'

Noori Kim, Assistant Professor in Electrical and Electronic Engineering at Newcastle University in Singapore.

Noori Kim image

What does it mean to be a woman in engineering?

A woman in engineering signifies the personalities and characteristics of the individual, which include integrity, perseverance, and self-control. Most of all, she is a survivor. It is not easy to continue studying or working on a subject without strong will and passion if a person is a minority. Therefore, a woman in engineering, who perseveres when facing obstacles, represents a strong enthusiasm for engineering.

Why is gender equality important in engineering?

Valuing gender equality would help bias and conformity issues in the engineering research environment. It would broaden perspectives and diversify the range of opinion on particular engineering problems. Eventually, acting for gender equality will be an essential step to mature the field of engineering.

What can we do to improve gender equality in engineering?

Gender equality in engineering is not achievable in a short period. We should continue and never stop our effort to improve the situation and promote our next generation of women engineers. Mentoring and networking would be good ideas to give our hands to young female engineers (to-be).

What advice would you give to women developing their university career in engineering?

Be proactive and take ownership of your work. Help each other and extend your network – try to be part of a social network in your early engineering career path.

 

'Find a network of allies from diverse personal and career backgrounds and listen and learn from their experience.'

Laura Brown, Centre Manager for the EPSRC National Centre for Energy Systems Integration.

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What does it mean to be a woman in engineering?

In my experience there is no particular difference between the motivations of men and women in engineering.  Engineers are generally positively challenged by the technical aspects of engineering, solving problems, working with technology and working across disciplines to provide solutions for society. The culture within the sector can be quite harsh though and therefore a degree of personal resilience is typically required for an extended career but this resilience requirement isn’t necessarily gender specific. To be a woman in engineering therefore means you are part of a well-respected, rewarding profession that is tackling important challenges.

What can we do to improve gender equality/ tackle the gender gap in engineering?

We could do a great deal more. The lack of women is not women’s ‘fault’ therefore it is not a woman’s problem to fix but it feels historically that has been how it has been approached.

One approach for Newcastle University might be to pull from the significant expertise from our colleagues in the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences and Newcastle University Business School to champion a culture change programme internally as well as set positive SMART targets for improving gender parity, measure these effectively and continually improving with long term goals.

It’s not a short project or task and finish group but a culture improvement programme that should be embedded in our learning, teaching, outreach and research.

Additionally, ask the people who are affected! Not only academic staff but students, researchers, professional support, business partners as well as leadership will have their own experiences of gender inequality.

What would you like to see change here at the University and how can we contribute to making it happen?

  • I would like the School of Engineering to prioritise gender equality in all of its business and continue to improve visibility of activity and progress.

  • I would like to see just as many female engineering students and academic staff as male.

  • I would like to see just as many male professional services administration staff as female staff to prevent the bias that admin is work for women.

What advice would you give to women developing their university career in engineering?

My advice is to find a network of allies from diverse personal and career backgrounds and listen to and learn from their experience. Be a good colleague and friend to these allies and in my experience they will pay you back tenfold in advice and support and help you steer a safe way through.

And from a personal development point of view, I would recommend to constantly keeping yourself upskilled to the latest elements of your discipline. Pay attention to policy directions, read, learn and keep striving to stretch your knowledge and capability. This can be managed by having some strategic goals that you work towards. Where do you want to be in 2 years’ time? Or in 5 years’ time? If your current activities aren’t helping you achieve these goals you will need to make an intervention to get you back on track. Also be open to opportunities that you hadn’t considered when they arrive or seek new experience out – e.g. fellowships, policy engagement, conference keynotes etc.

 

'Believe in yourselves, apply for positions before you are ready - appear more confident than you feel inside.'

Hayley Fowler, Professor of Climate Change Impacts.
Hayley Fowler image What does it mean to be a woman in engineering?

It can be difficult being a woman in engineering - it is a very male-dominated field. Especially as you get more senior you can expect to be the only woman in the room sometimes and it can be difficult to make your voice heard. But it is really important that we try to get more women into these senior positions.

To more junior colleagues, I would say - find a mentor, let more senior women give you a leg-up in your career in the same way that commonly happens for men - through advocacy.

Believe in yourselves, apply for positions before you are ready - appear more confident than you feel inside. We have to gradually chip away at the male dominance of the field to change the culture from within. And, there are lots of men on our side who will support you as well to make changes - you just have to ask and you'll know who they are.

Which women are your engineering heroes?

There are many women who inspire me. One is Dame Ann Dowling. She was President of the Royal Academy of Engineering from 2014–2019, the Academy's first female president, during which time she visited Newcastle and we held a session about how to improve gender equality in engineering.

Since I am in climate change research, Julia King, the Baroness Brown, Head of the Adaptation Committee (and an engineer!) is an inspiration, someone who is trying to produce better parity on climate action between mitigation (reducing greenhouse gas emissions) and adaptation (making society more resilient to unavoidable climate risks).

I am also truly inspired by a couple of climate scientists. The first, Dame Julia Slingo has led the Met Office as Chief Scientist and has tried to bridge the 'Valley of Death' between science and impact/practice through setting up the Natural Hazards Partnership, the Flood Forecasting Centre and most recently leading the Weather Advisory Task Force that I was fortunate to be part of, advising Network Rail on how to respond to the Stonehaven tragedy. Finally, my friend Sonia Seneviratne, Professor at ETH Zurich, is truly inspirational - recently listed as 9th most influential climate scientist worldwide (and top woman!)

 

'Work in those fields that you are passionate about and inspire those to follow in your footsteps one day.'

Yen Nee Tan is Associate Professor in Chemical Engineering as well as the Director of Equality, Diversity and Inclusion of Newcastle University in Singapore.

Yen Nee Tan image

What does it mean to be a woman in engineering?

Engineering involves everyone and influences every part of our lives, from our daily consumables involving chemical engineering to electronic/biomedical devices produced by the electrical and biomedical engineers.

A woman in engineering means an individual who can make a difference in other people’s lives and has the tenacity and technical knowledge to contribute in these fields. Women engineers are not only professionals but also ladies with lamps dedicated to care about their families as daughters, wives, and mothers. Female leaders in engineering are also great role models for young girls to look up to, and take inspiration from, so as to encourage more women to enter the STEM fields.

Why is gender equality important in engineering?

A diverse workforce could lead to increased creativity, motivation and morale, which qualities are important in developing innovative engineering solutions. Therefore, efforts to cultivate female talent in engineering and close the gender gap are imperative to drive innovation, diversify opinions and broaden perspectives. Best results and solutions are always obtained by collective thought. No man (or woman) is an island even though engineering is somewhat unorthodox in a field largely dominated by men. Gender equality is thus important to ensure that our future engineers are approaching the problems from a variety of viewpoints, leading to a diverse engineering workforce that are more creative and productive.

What can we do to improve gender equality/ tackle the gender gap in engineering?

There are many things that we can do and, in fact, have been doing to improve gender equality in engineering. One of the best ways is to encourage more women to enter the field at all stages. Significant exposure to STEM subjects at an early age can undoubtedly increase the chances that young girls will consider engineering as a career.

University, companies and professional organizations could help to promote gender equality and create an environment that is conducive to female engineers. As ‘seeing is believing’, role models and mentoring by female leaders in engineering is an effective way to encourage more young girls to go down the same path and put themselves forward. If we all pull together, I believe that the gender gap in engineering will eventually close.

What advice would you give to women developing their university career in engineering?

Be confident and believe in yourself, it can be difficult sometimes to juggle between family and work, but as women, we can endure and embrace the challenges.

Never give up your dream and actively pursue your career in engineering for not to be afraid of taking the path less travelled. Most importantly, work on those fields that you are passionate about and inspire those will follow your footsteps one day to create the propagating effects in engineering.

I would like to share this quote with my fellow ladies: “Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood. Now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less.” ~ Marie Curie.

What would you like to see change here at the University and how can we contribute to making it happen?

Because the number of women in the field is low, there are also not many female leaders in engineering, which can make it difficult for new generations of female engineers to find relatable mentors.

One effective way is to increase female leadership in engineering and have more female professors in STEM as mentors in the universities. Studies show that female students are more likely to choose a major in STEM when they are assigned a female professor instead of a male one. As more women take on prominent roles in the industry, it helps to shape the environment of the workplace to be more welcoming to other female engineers.

 

'Be proud of who you are and seek out the support of like-minded colleagues to help you through your career.'

Sara Walker, Director of the Centre for Energy.

Sara Walker image

What does it mean to be a woman in engineering?

To me, it means being part of a minority but being very proud of my role and being willing to speak up for others in order to improve the culture for women in engineering.

Which women are your engineering heroes?

I am inspired by Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell. She discovered pulsars as part of her PhD, for which her (male) supervisor was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics. Years later she was awarded £2.3m for a “Special Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics” and donated the entire prize money to enable physics scholarships for minority students.

What challenges do you face?

Challenges occur every day. These include things such as comments on appearance, or assumptions about being junior to male colleagues. At a conference, someone once assumed I was the PA to a male professor colleague!

Why is gender equality important in engineering?

If we don’t have inclusive voices in discussions on engineering solutions, we end up with solutions that only work for those who have been given a voice. Hence difficulties getting hard hats, safety boots and high-vis vests that fit women, bullet proof vests that don’t account for busts and digital personal assistants with female voices as the default setting.

What can we do to improve gender equality in engineering?

We can try to be more aware of the risks inherent with poor gender equality. We can address workplace culture to educate and challenge colleagues to be champions for equality. We can have a zero tolerance for sexism in the workplace.

What would you like to see change here at the University and how can we contribute to making it happen?

I would like to see more women in leadership roles, and I would like to see more meetings where time is given to listen to female and male perspectives.

What advice would you give to women developing their university career in engineering?

Be proud of who you are and seek out the support of like-minded colleagues to help you through your career journey.

 

'I get to learn something new every day and use this to come up with ideas to make a positive contribution to the world.'

Elizabeth Lewis, Lecturer in Computational Hydrology.
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Which women are your engineering heroes?

Grace Hopper (who created the first computer programming language) and Elizabeth Shaw (who literally wrote the book on Hydrology); Prof. Corinne Le Quéré and Julia King, Baroness Brown of Cambridge (for their work on climate change and impact on climate policy); Prof. Hayley Fowler, Dr Selma Guerreiro and Dr Maria Pregnolato (who I am lucky enough to work closely with day to day!)

Why is gender equality important in engineering?

Engineers design solutions to society’s problems. As much as engineers may try to be unbiased, our own experiences inevitably shape the solutions we come up with.

Our society is very diverse and so our engineers should represent that diversity to ensure that the solutions designed work for everyone.

What advice would you give to women developing their university career in engineering?
  • Make sure that this really is the career for you - it is an awesome job but has some unique challenges. You have to be entirely self-driven, able to take constant criticism and rejection and live with lots of job uncertainty (especially early in your career).
  • Go for it! Read, learn, listen, discuss your research as much as possible- stay inspired! Sign up for as much training, networking and responsibility as you can manage - lots of opportunities come through these routes.
  • Find yourself a role model/mentor, someone who has the work/life balance you aspire to, someone you can learn from, and someone who will create opportunities for you. Surround yourself with supportive people: peer mentors, friends, family with will support you through all of the challenges and celebrate your successes.

 

'The job of 'engineer' needs some serious rebranding.'

Georgia Peavoy, PhD student in Bioelectronics Engineering.
Georgia Peavoy What does it mean to be a woman in engineering?

Of course, being a woman in engineering is first and foremost about being an engineer, but it's also like being part of a really amazing club. All of the other women engineers I know are so strong and capable and we always have each other's backs because we are all facing the same issues, it really is a great thing to be a part of.

What challenges do you face?

I'd say the biggest barrier I face is one of personal boundaries and professionalism. I notice a lot that some people (particularly those quite a bit older than me) are more likely to make comments on my appearance and personal life than they are about my male counterparts, which can come across as disrespectful and make me uncomfortable. Though I'd definitely say that as I'm gaining experience, I'm getting better at deflecting these comments and not letting them bother me. I also find all the rhetoric around "diversity hires" very wearing, but I find most people are willing to accept that you know your stuff after you've proved yourself.

Why is gender equality important in engineering?

Because half of all people are women! The world is desperate for more talented engineers and it's ridiculous to shut out half of all potential engineers for something as silly as their gender. I strongly believe that everyone with an interest in engineering needs to have the opportunity to reach their full potential in this field, as the more talent we have in engineering (especially at higher levels), the better the world is for everyone.

What can we do to tackle the gender gap in engineering?

I think the job of engineer needs some serious rebranding. We need to let girls and young women know that the vast majority of graduate engineering jobs don’t involve being covered in grease servicing machines, and that you really don't have to be a genius to be a successful engineer. We should improve the visibility of all of the women doing amazing work in engineering and the wide variety of roles they occupy, as it's vital for young girls to have these role models. 

Other than that I think more outreach to high school aged girls is the most important step, as research shows this is where most girls start to lose their interest in maths and sciences.

 

'The contribution you make to engineering or science has nothing to do with your gender.'

Robyn Hare, Scientific Glass Blowing Technician.

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Why is gender equality important in engineering?

Ideas and solutions for problems don’t just come from one place or one group of people and we must try to think inclusively about how we work together to tackle issues and make change happen. The people who will solve problems in the future aren’t the stereotypes we may have assumed in the past. We all have different and unique ways of being innovative for the future. All that really matters is that you enjoy what you do and are passionate about making a difference. There shouldn’t be challenges or barriers in your way as your role and the contribution you make to engineering or science has nothing to do with your gender.

What can we do to improve gender equality in engineering?

To improve the equality and diversity in engineering there needs to be more awareness of engineering jobs for girls and young women in schools not just at a degree level but at apprenticeship and technical level too. The more awareness there can be about job roles the higher chance there will be for women and others to apply for these them. It’s also important to listen to young people and understand why they might not go for a particular job or choose a certain career path so we can address some of the barriers. I also think we should be more mindful of where the job is advertised asking is it accessible to everyone.

Engineering in the past has been seen as male dominated and many people who influence, guide and inspire us like our parents, teachers or tutors still think of it in that way. It is up to us to educate people on that misconception and show others what workplaces can be like, instead of the possible negative images they imagine.

What advice would you give to women developing their university career in engineering?

Focus on the work you enjoy and be kind to yourself. It’s really easy to tear yourself down and be self-critical. Being reflective and finding areas for development is a really great tool for improving but not if you’re going to dwell on things that didn’t go as well as you expected them to or find fault with everything you do. Be confident in your strengths and be your own inspiration. If you struggle to find a person you look up to and want to be like, then be that person yourself.

 

'I'm lucky to work within a diverse research group and I can see the positive effect it has on the work we do.'

Jenny Olsen, Biomedical Engineering PhD student.

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Which women are your engineering heroes?

I'd say my colleagues are my biggest inspiration! Within my lab I have lots of female peers who have all had interesting and outstanding careers. I really enjoy hearing about their previous jobs and how much they have achieved in a relatively short time!

Why is gender equality important in engineering?

I feel that whenever a team lacks diversity, whether it's gender or otherwise, you're missing out on different perspectives and ways of thinking! I'm lucky to work within a diverse research group and I can see the positive effect it has on the work we do.

What advice would you give to women developing their university career? 

Build a network of friends, colleagues and peers - and believe in yourself! 

 

"Inspiring young girls to follow in my footsteps and challenge the obstacles that prevent them."

Charlotte McMain, President of FEMENG Society studying Mechanical Engineering.
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What does it mean to be a woman in engineering? 

Right now for me, being a woman in engineering  means feeling like the odd one out as a minority in  a lecture theatre full of men, being overlooked and  undervalued during group projects, struggling to imagine myself in an industry that lacks successful female role models, and feeling, in general, as though I inherently don’t belong. However, it also means offering a unique perspective on the world and my experience of life, learning to embrace and celebrate everything that makes me an individual and not be held down by out-dated stereotypes, inspiring young girls to follow in my footsteps and challenging the obstacles that prevent them, and everyday proving that women can be equally as successful as men.

Which women in engineering inspire you?

I am so inspired by Catherine Noakes OBE, a professor of Environmental Engineering at Leeds University, and recipient of the Royal Academy of Engineering President’s Special Award for Pandemic Service due to her work advising the UK Government on the transport of airborne pathogens to prevent the spread of COVID-19. I think Catherine is a great role-model for young engineers as a prominent woman at the forefront of the fight against the pandemic, and an example of how diverse engineering careers can be. Sometimes Engineering can be misrepresented as a physical, dirty, male-dominated profession, however Catherine shows that studying Engineering equips you with the skills to carry out many different roles, from research and academia to construction - even to leadership and governance.

Why is gender equality important in engineering?

It is SO important! As a placement student in an all-male office last year, I sometimes felt I had to hide or downplay my stereotypically feminine personality traits and act ‘like a man’ so as to fit in with the team and succeed.

Gender equality, but more broadly, increased diversity and inclusion, in engineering, means that everyone, no matter their gender, sexuality, age, disability, race, or religion, will feel comfortable in their skin and valued for their contributions at work.

Engineering influences every aspect of our lives and I believe that input from a wide range of life experiences and perspectives will only improve the innovations we create!

What would you like to see change here at the University and how can we contribute to making it happen?

I would love to see more initiatives in place to specifically target the recruitment of girls onto our engineering courses. I know I found it scary to think I would be one of only a few girls in such a huge cohort when I applied to Newcastle, and so I think the School could do more at a pre-university level to encourage girls to study Engineering and make their courses more inclusive.

I have really enjoyed setting up FemEng society this year, and I think more projects like this that foster a sense of community and give women a voice in the School of Engineering will help to empower students and make being a ‘Woman in Engineering’ less of a negative label, and actually, something to be proud of - I know I am! 

 

Meet some more of our inspirational women working within our Faculty of Science, Agriculture and Engineering.

Learn More About Our  Faculty of Science, Agriculture & Engineering