Being a successful engineer shouldn't be based on gender

7th February 2017
Posted By : Anna Flockett
Being a successful engineer shouldn't be based on gender

It's no secret that there are far more men in engineering than women; however that does not mean that men are more successful. Philippa Oldham, Head of Transport and Manufacturing at the Institution of Mechanical Engineers is evidence of this. From a young age, the word engineering was always a buzzword in Philippa’s household, as both her great-grandfather and grandfather, who she unfortunately never got to meet, were both engineers, so her parents knew the industry well and this was a huge impact on Oldham. 

This is certainly where her early interest began, always taking things apart, (much to her parent’s joy) and being very good at maths, and even when taking part in work experience at 12 years old, Oldham went to work in a garage, so she could learn more about how a car worked.

From changing tyres to changing spark plugs, working in the garage was a real hands-on experience to start her off in her long career in engineering, followed shortly by attending some courses run by WISE (the campaign to promote women in science, technology and engineering) in association with Loughborough University and Imperial College, to introduce girls to engineering, with tours round the facilities.

Oldham said she was always slightly different in the sense she always gravitated more to male company: “I did two of these residential courses - they were only long weekends, but when you're 12/13 they feel like a lifetime. I think a challenge is girls can be somewhat competitive at that age, and very much wanting to be centre of attention. Whereas I was always much more into playing sport, and had the carefree attitude of the boys, so I got on with them better.”

So when asked how she found it in a male dominated world, the truth was that Oldham preferred that sort of environment.

However, there have been occasions where she has come across prejudice. Oldham explained that as a young female in the industry, when she turned up to some meetings, some people just assumed she was there to take minutes or to perform an admin role.

Oldham added: “I have been on factory floors where you do get wolf whistles at you, but partly that is because back then, the only women those workers would see would be in the finance or marketing offices.” She added, laughing: “I would usually just shout some comments back at them.”

Oldham said she still finds a certain level of arrogance from some of the senior male counterparts. “Whether that is due to me being a younger female, they may feel that I lack experience or that I am not at their level, however, I don’t believe that this is unique to my profession.

“Throughout my career I have had a few female engineers that have not been supportive. One of the first women I encountered, when I was about 14, made it very clear to me that: “It’s very difficult to get into engineering as it’s a hugely male dominated world, and you have to be the best of the best." Looking back, she might not have been trying to be off-putting or negative, but she came across that way. I remember coming out of there and thinking she wasn’t very supportive. And I remember that having an impact on me for quite a few years.”

It was a knock of confidence for Oldham, and she reiterates that today, we still have some women who are unsupportive of the campaign of encouraging more women into engineering. There is a certain attitude of ‘I’ve got here through being a good engineer, and I shouldn't be singled out just because I am a woman.' Whist this is true the more female engineers promoting themselves the quicker we will turn the discussion from being about gender to one that is promoting what an exciting and game chancing profession engineering is.

Oldham’s mother has always been a massive Formula 1 fan, and this was clearly passed down to her, and because of this, when it came to looking for summer placement work she wrote to all the F1 teams.

McLaren got back in touch and suggested contacting Ilmor Engineering, who made their race engines at the time, as Oldham’s interest seemed to be more within engine development. So for the next five years she juggled this work experience with her studies. She began learning in Ilmor's design office and testing, and in her final two years was actually given her own projects to oversee and work on, where she got full hands-on experience.

“The thing about Formula 1, especially in those times, was that the problems that occurred on the race track, would come back on the Monday or Tuesday for you to try and resolve, and the changes made to the design on Wednesday, went back to testing on the Thursday and would be in the qualifying engine by the Saturday. So the product lifecycle of each of the engines was so fast paced. Money was no object; it was the fastest thing I have worked on even to this day in terms of turnaround time.”

Oldham said that even though it was amazing, you really saw how hard the teams had to work, to meet those deadlines - it really became a lifestyle choice to work in that sort of environment. This was one of the things that made Oldham stand back and think "Do I love Formula 1 as much as I thought" in terms of devoting every hour of every day while the season was running (and beyond). This is where Oldham saw that this was just one of the career paths associated with engineering.

She added: “One thing I have liked more is looking at an entire system and how you can improve it.”

Oldham is a member of various organisations including Women in Science and Engineering (WISE), Women’s Engineering Society (WES) and Women's Transportation Seminar (WTS). She supports these initiatives through judging awards, mentoring and promoting work on social media, and she explained that when promoting more women in engineering, she feels that it is important that she isn’t just talking to women.

“You know you are preaching to the converted, and actually some of my best mentors, role models and most supportive people throughout my career have been my male colleagues who have always backed me. They have always been 100% supportive when they have understood that I am good at my job.”

Oldham added that a key element is to have men championing the fact that we need more women in engineering: “The more female exposure the better.”

She also believes one of the main factors behind the dearth of female engineers is the lack of understanding in the education system of what an engineering profession looks like, and the lack of knowledge that it even exists.

There is often the view that an engineer just performs jobs like sorting your heating out at home, and there is a misconception about the different roles played by an engineer. “I think that part of the challenge is that while you can put a doctor in a hospital, or a lawyer in a court, because engineering sits across so many sectors, and there is so many roles, you cannot pigeon hole them.”

There is more clarity needed around that area, and what is interesting is that there is very little difference between the number of girls and boys completing STEM GCSE subjects - it is pretty much 50/50. However there is a huge drop off in females wanting to take physics, which is needed for engineering. Oldham commented that part of the challenge is understanding that rather than choosing to be a vet, doctor or engineer, it is encouraging these female students to carry on with the STEM subjects.

However, another thing that is not always told to girls at school is that by becoming an engineer, you can make a real difference in and to society. Everything around us has been designed by an engineer. Oldham shared: “If you don’t like something, or you want to change something you can if you become an engineer. It's like the world is your oyster, in terms of what you want to do and how you want to have an impact.”

Engineering has also been proved in many surveys and research to be a happy job. Engineering regularly comes up as being in the top five or ten professions. “It’s because you are making a difference, and if you are unhappy in the job you’re doing in engineering, you can just move to a different sector or challenge. You feel a sense of achievement, seeing that sort of output. Engineering is definitely a profession where you see that difference you are making.”

However, as an industry there are elements that could be considered to help and encourage women. “As a personal perspective, I don’t feel quotas are the correct way to go.”

Ultimately it is documented that we need more people in engineering, whether they be male or female, so gender is irrelevant in some respects. But industry needs to ensure what it offers is attractive.

Oldham added that one of the huge problems here is with returnships, and making sure women (and men) can progress throughout industry, particularly taking time out to look after the family or have children. “There are some figures from 2010, where there were 100,000 female STEM graduates, who were unemployed. I have known cases of women who were engineers, who took some time out to have a baby, and then tried to come back with hours that match up with school and they can’t - there seems to be limited part-time roles out there.”

This is a shame as Oldham expressed: "In these cases you miss out on a great deal of talent, and this is something that does need to change. There is this whole uncertainty when having a child about returning to work, as how do you return after a whole year off, and that is something the industry needs to become better at.

“When I was pregnant and went to have a baby, I was very keen not to lose my profile, because I knew I had worked hard to get my status and be a top engineer. For then to take a gap for a year, essentially dropping off the face of the earth, it would have had an impact on my career, but how do you best manage that?"

Whilst keeping in touch schemes do this, perhaps it isn’t enough for women to keep their profiles as high as is needed. Oldham was lucky and had a good enough relationship with her manager to talk about it and sort it out, but challenges did lie with the HR department as she was asking for something that had never been asked for previously.

“What I find really sad about that, is in today’s world we are all targeted with SMART objectives, and told what we have to deliver - why, when and how. From my perspective, as long as you are meeting these targets and even outperforming on some, should it matter where you are? Shouldn’t we have trust in our workforce that they will have integrity to deliver what the business requires them to do? I find it very sad that we are still so rigid in how we ask people to do their jobs.”

Although Oldham explained she had many role models and inspirations that influenced her, she instantly thought of her parents and commented: “My mum was a career woman, she didn’t have children until she was a bit older, and was very supportive of the fact you can be whatever you want to be, and not to let anyone tell you, you can’t do something.”

At the age of 15/16 Oldham actually found out she had dyslexia, and prior to this she was at a point where English teachers were telling her she was stupid and not good enough. However it was the support from her parents, who acknowledged her skill in maths and science, which made them think it was another issue.

Oldham did add that she was always inspired by Leonardo Da Vinci: “I was always made aware of him from my mum, and his artwork, but as you delve deeper into people you can see that he had this whole creativity streak, and he was a pioneering engineer. And often I think that is something that is missed, often people think if you are good at maths and science you aren’t creative, which is obviously completely incorrect. There is definitely a miscommunication in the industry.”

There are two other people who inspired young Oldham. The work of Adrian Newey (who followed the university route) and Ross Brawn (who began life as an apprentice), and how they took F1 teams to win multiple World Championships with a variety of teams and transformed the cars, both were integral to the sport that we enjoy today.

From being a professional herself, Oldham will be inspiring a lot of young people to hopefully follow in her footsteps, and she was contacted by the ‘Inspiring the Future Programme’ set up by the government which led Oldham to become a governor at a primary school. “I think and believe that is a very important role for engineers to do, becoming involved in a primary school to influence and help those types of organisations. I would actively encourage people to sign up to that.”

You can view Philippa’s twitter page here.

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