Kate Hillman has been a structural engineer with Atkins for just over five years, and a Graduate Member of the Institution for all of that time. Here she talks about her career, the importance of National Women in Engineering Day, and what it means to her.
I worked on a large defence-related project for my first three and a half years at Atkins, including a year working on site – which was a significant experience, not just because I saw my design come to life, but also for the appreciation it gave me of how designers can help on site during construction. The design work I did was key to the success of the project and was later developed on other projects for the same client. Currently I’m working on the Doha Metro Gold Line, drawing on previous experience with Crossrail and the Riyadh Metro.
I’m also a STEMNet ambassador, and I find that many girls in school haven’t considered engineering as a career. However those that have often asked the same thing: “I want to be an engineer, does it matter that I’m a girl, will it hold me back?”
That shows a continuing negative perception of engineering as a male dominated profession. Today is important because it helps address this issue, highlighting the careers of the most successful women in industry for the benefit of girls in school, university students and young women in the early stages of their careers (like me). It’s also a great way of generating enthusiasm for women in engineering through fun activities – this morning we broke the world record for the largest consecutive high five in London’s Horse Guard’s Parade! At Atkins each office is having their own event - in Epsom we’re holding a special lunch, seminar and networking session.
There have been many improvements in promoting engineering at school and university level but there is still more that can be done. Unfortunately general attitudes towards women in the workplace still have an effect and we need to consider these when talking to students. Small things can make a big difference, for example I think language plays a big part in unconsciously defining roles – an engineer in a hypothetical situation does not have to default to ‘he’. Further work is needed to bring together industry, parents and teachers – ongoing partnerships with local schools rather than just one-off careers visits can lead to initiatives like after school clubs and parents’ evenings.
UK universities work hard to recruit women into engineering degrees, but it is still a male-dominated field and maybe it would be useful for universities to further prepare their female students for the industry by offering something like the Atkins’ women’s development programme, which looks at improving soft-skills in areas like assertiveness, communication and career goals.
Opportunities are definitely there for women in industry, particularly at graduate level where I have rarely seen much disparity. However, I don’t see many women in more senior positions; retaining female engineers seems to be as big an issue as attracting recruits - which is why I think NWIED is a good initiative within the industry as well as outside. We need to work hard to keep women in senior positions, highlight career progression opportunities and provide return-to-work support. At all levels, having visible role models can give women the encouragement and confidence to pursue their career aspirations. Women like Sarah Buck (first female President of the Institution of Structural Engineers) can inspire a new generation of female engineers, and today is when we celebrate their achievements.
This National Women in Engineering Day I’d encourage engineers to think about what resources they could create to encourage more young women into engineering, based on the inspiring women already doing great work in the industry. It really is a great career, and the more women professionals we gain the richer the profession, industry and even society will be.