Women in engineering: ‘It’s an exciting time to join the profession’

Each year in June, International Women in Engineering Day aims to raise the profile of women in engineering, celebrate their achievements, and highlight some of the career opportunities available to women around the world.

The theme this year is ‘inventors and innovators’, so we caught up with three female engineers who’ve been involved in creating innovative new products or systems.

Holly, software engineer, London

This industry is actually really cool and super fun!

How I got into software engineering

I'm a software engineer for Microsoft. My interest in technology started from quite a young age. I was playing a lot of video games and it really inspired me to want to understand how they were built and ultimately create my own.

I did web development classes in high school in the United States. After high school I moved to England to study Computer Science with Business and it was there that I got my year-long internship with my current company.

My placement year and internship were monumental in my career. It really solidified in my mind that tech was something I wanted to pursue. It aligned with my interests and also gave me real world experiences and skills.

Working on innovative projects

My work on Paint 3D is a particular innovation highlight for me. We worked to make 2D and 3D creation accessible for people of all ages, skills and backgrounds. We achieved this by using familiar tools and interfaces, building that friendly User Experience (UX), taking away the complexities of 3D creation, and taking the technical jargon away from the user. It was really well received by the users and the press and I still love seeing people all over social media using it. I love seeing everyone’s creations.

An example project in Paint 3D

Innovating for the future

My goal is to help make the world a better place through technology. Technology is pervasive, it has impacted every single industry on the planet. I think it’s really important as its influence continues to grow, that we make sure technology is created with everybody in mind. To do that, ultimately we need to build diverse teams that come from a mix of backgrounds and different perspectives.

One of my favourite outreach programmes is the DigiGirlz programme – we bring in girls and show them what the technology industry is like, away from the stereotypes they might have. We give them hands-on experience either building some of the tech or using some of our tech. This industry is actually really cool and super fun!

Top tips for a career in software engineering

  • Seek out the intersections where your passions and technology meet. For example, I was passionate about dance, so I thought about creating a tool to learn better dance moves. It’s about finding those ways that make it fun or that are for something you want to use
  • Try to focus on a particular area of technology – whether that’s virtual assistance, web development, artificial intelligence (AI) or games – and learn the technologies for that first. You can always expand your breadth of knowledge later
  • Seek out communities and mentorship. When I first started in the tech industry, there were almost no women around me that were interested in tech. It wasn’t until I got to university that I started to meet my female techie friends, started to embrace this true love and started advocating for other people to get involved. There are so many people on social media now that speak about these things.

Hiba, civil engineer, London

Being able to see people being safe and running around and playing because of your work is really amazing.

Engineering to build flood defences

I work for Mott MacDonald (Mottmac) in international development, on really large hundreds-of-million-dollar projects. I focus on water engineering, which includes irrigation of crops or building flood defences.

I spent five years working on a project in Bangladesh. On the largest river delta in the world – where all the rivers collide – some of the rivers are 10km wide, and they have river bank erosion. The river bank is sand and silt and the water is coming really fast, so it can erode up to a kilometre of the bank every year.

Normally you would put rock under the water, as a hard surface in between the water and the river, but in Bangladesh they don’t have much rock, so instead we created what are called ‘geobags’. They’re made of fabric, you stitch it like a pillowcase, fill it with sand, and then you push them out on barges and they fall under the water and make a hard surface. They’re much better than rock, they’re cheaper and they’re more environmentally-friendly.

Innovating as we go

We’re doing a few other things which are really exciting. With embankments – any kind of raised bank which helps protect the villagers from flooding – they often use really hard protection like concrete, but we’re looking at using reeds and grasses, to protect against erosion. We put that on 22km of embankment in Bangladesh and it all performed really well. It looks really nice, it works well as erosion protection, and it’s a habitat – the local people use it for grazing their cows.

Hiba at the Koijuri Embankment in Bangladesh
Embankment made of grout-filled jute mattress; putting out geobags in Bangladesh; construction of mattress embankment.

What I love about engineering

For me it’s helping people. Engineers save lives, working in sanitation and in flood defence. Being able to help people at a huge scale and being able to see people being safe and running around and playing because of your work is really amazing.

Also, there are no set solutions. That’s something else I love about it. Two engineers could go in and look at a problem and come up with two completely different things that both work.

Top tips for a career in civil engineering

  • It’s not all maths. I did Physics, Art, Maths and English Literature for A-levels. Engineering is about talking to people – like the farmers on the river bank – and understanding what the actual problem is and where the best use of this money is
  • Look for something that can give you the variety that you need. Engineering is so broad. I never expected that I could travel. I’ve worked in four countries and no one ever told me that’s what engineering could involve
  • Look at engineering companies and the Institution of Civil Engineers. You can do work placements, to understand what engineering is and what it means.

Emma, geotechnical engineer, Worcestershire

It’s an exciting time to join the profession. You don’t have to take the traditional route from A-levels to a degree.

Using innovation to tackle climate change

I’m a construction director for National Grid Interconnectors. My role is to make sure we’re constructing large sub-sea cables to connect the UK to Europe, which can share excess renewable energy. For example, when lots of wind is blowing in the UK and producing green energy, my role is to build the interconnectors and transport that energy into other countries.

It’s innovative because renewable energy is still in a developing state and interconnections are an exciting solution – we could be in a position where the UK and European countries run on green energy, that’s the ultimate goal.

How I got into engineering

I did Geography, Maths, Chemistry and Biology for A-level. I was interested in physical geography and looked into Geology degrees and that’s when I fell in love with geotechnical engineering. During my degree I was sponsored by a company and I got the chance to get involved in offshore wind. I learned how wind farms work, I watched the industry grow and I developed as an individual.

Later, although I had an engineering background, I could also relate engineering to project management, and could understand the paths needed to bring people together, so I got involved in leading construction portfolios.

Why I love engineering

Engineering can be complex. I love watching individuals who have different levels of expertise coming together to solve a problem. For example, a civil engineer works with an electrical engineer and you end up with a structure and building that can be built and have all the electrical systems put in. It’s exciting watching that click together, seeing something grow.

It’s an exciting time to join the profession. You don’t have to take the traditional route from A-levels to a degree. There are apprentice and graduate schemes, and mentoring offered in the industry.

Top tips for a career in engineering

  • Don’t let the ‘gremlin on your shoulder’ influence the way you approach something. There’s a perception that being a woman in engineering isn’t a normal path to take but actually it can really accelerate your career. You get the opportunity to add something different to a construction site or engineering environment
  • Talk to as many people as you can and find out what excites you – what is going to get you out of bed in the morning? Message people at different organisations and say ‘can I spend ten minutes with you, talking to you about your career?'
  • Try and find someone to mentor or sponsor you, and to act as your voice in different forums. My best career moment was when someone believed in me – that belief is really important for your confidence and to know that as a female you can inspire others across the industry.

Where next?

How to become an engineer
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