Published: 11 July 2016

Lifetime achievement

Careers, Women Engineers

Jenny Cornwell, a member of the Institution for over 40 years, won our 2016 Lifetime Achievement Award at this year's People and Papers event. Here she discusses her career and changing opportunities for women engineers.

I am very surprised and very honoured to receive the Lifetime Achievement Award. I came into structural engineering almost by accident - I had a very mixed up secondary education with virtually no science training, all from several very small schools which had no science teaching or labs. 

I originally planned to be a teacher, taking A-levels in History and Art, but then left teacher training college without finishing the course. I have never regretted the Art; I have often said since that structural engineers should have Maths, Physics and Art as their A-levels!

At that point my father suggested applying to engineering firms to work in their drawing office. I started in the industry in 1962, when I joined a structural steel fabrication firm, John Lysaght’s Bristol Works. From there I went to Bristol Technical College to take an Ordinary National Certificate and later a Higher National Certificate (the equivalent of NVQs and GNVQs) and endorsements which brought these qualifications up to degree level.

After a spell with a consultant, I worked for central government for many years. Now semi-retired, I have my own private practice. During this time, I became an active member of the Engineering Council’s now defunct Regional Organisation – when I very much enjoyed talking part in careers events at schools and universities, and talking about exciting engineering careers with enthusiastic teenagers. I've also been an active member of the Institution’s Western Counties Regional Group Committee for some time.

My experience of the construction industry has always been good. In the early years of my career I was often the only woman at engineering events and seminars, and again on early site visits I sometimes had the impression that some would be asking what I, a woman, was doing there. I must say that once people were aware that I knew what I doing I was always accepted as part of the team. As a technician, and later as an engineer working for the civil service, I rarely had any problems as a result of being a woman and was always accepted and respected as an equal member of the design team. 

I think the main obstacles to girls entering engineering careers remain peer and parental pressure, and the way they are taught; there is a lingering perception that engineering is a boys’ subject. That’s nonsense of course. I suspect that many woman engineers come from single sex schools who have/had a policy of encouraging girls who show an interest in STEM subjects.

To bring more women into the profession we need to continue working with organisations like WES, (the Women’s Engineering Society), and encourage our members to support and take an active part in STEM activities, emphasising the point that both boys and girls can enjoy exciting, successful careers in engineering - and to keep their options open when making GCSE choices. 

I'd encourage any young woman thinking about an engineering career to go for it: engineering is an interesting and very varied career. One project is never the same as the next, and one of the great joys of the profession is the chance to work with such a range of talented people.
 

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