My journey into manufacturing as a female engineer

As a child, Process Engineer, Amanda, dreamed of being a doctor but it wasn’t until she got to medical school that she realised her interests lay elsewhere. Now fascinated by engineering and having been a STEM ambassador, DATS was keen to learn more about Amanda in line with International Women in Engineering Day (INWED) 2018.

“I had quite a complicated journey into engineering”, Amanda told us. “At school I enjoyed chemistry, physics, biology and maths and had set my mind on studying medicine.”

But after her first year in university, Amanda realised that this wasn’t the path she wanted to take. “I found the learning too repetitive, but did enjoy the logical thinking elements, so I decided to study engineering instead. Suddenly I was really enjoying this totally different way of thinking and have never looked back.”

The attraction

Amanda admits she’s “obsessed” with how things are made on an industrial level. “I love watching machines make things, I can sit and watch the program Food Factory all day – we take for granted how even a bottle of water is made, but some machines can produce 500 bottles a minute – how can you not be excited by that”

Since studying chemical engineering, Amanda has worked as a project engineer, has been involved in operations and plant management, sustainability, deploying innovation and technology globally into different factories, and is currently a senior process engineer. “My work is really varied and has given me the opportunity to travel to sites across the globe.”

Even Amanda’s current role is providing her with plenty of variety; from traditional process engineering work which involves designing process flows and specifying new equipment, to managing budgets in collaboration with the wider business areas. “Every day is different”, she smiles.

A lack of education

So why are more women not entering this exciting world of engineering?

Amanda feels that problems begin with a lack of education. “At school, it’s easy for children to fall into conventional subjects and careers – maths, English; doctors, teachers. Engineering isn’t really promoted as an option and isn’t popular. You rarely hear children, girls or boys, say they want to be an engineer when they grow up.” She continues, “Schools need to be giving pupils exposure to the different types of engineering.”

And that’s exactly what Amanda did with her goddaughter. “She’s doing her GCSEs so is at a really critical age. I arranged to take her into work for a day to show her around. Even if engineering isn’t for her, at least she’s had the opportunity to see what it’s all about” Amanda shared.

According to Amanda, another problem which may prevent young women from entering the industry is gender bias and stereotypes. “I’ve been lucky to not have experienced any real gender-related issues myself, but you do get the odd comment. During my first role as a project engineer, I had to speak to the training coordinator to agree on what training I needed to complete so that I could write and manage permits-to-work,” she told us, “and when I first approached the guy at the training centre and explained that I needed to be able to write permits-to-work, he commented ‘I assume you are not from an engineering background so the process can be quite tricky’. I’m unsure as to whether the assumption was based upon my young age at the time, or my gender, but the training coordinator was surprised (and a little embarrassed) to learn that I was a fully-fledged engineer and apologised.”

Amanda suggests, though, that issues like these are becoming less common and she puts this down to initiatives such as INWED. “Gender equality is getting better but there is a fine balance of not going too far. I’ve experienced positive discrimination and women don’t want to be treated differently, just equally.”

Change for the future

In Amanda’s opinion, it’s much rarer nowadays to be the only female in an engineering environment. Her advice to women who do find themselves in the minority though? “Thrive in it! Ignore other people’s opinions and be confident. Prove to people with assumptions that they are wrong and engineering is a viable option for girls and women.”

She adds “Engineering is a very broad subject with many different possibilities. Explore it. There are many transferable skills that are attractive to employers. I’d say 20-30% of the individuals on my course at uni ended up doing something other than chemical engineering, but an engineering degree has given them a strong foundation.”

Following her own experiences, Amanda now sees herself as an ambassador for engineering and has visited schools, colleges and science fairs to give talks and spread the word about her passion, as well as the importance of attracting more women into the industry.

“We’ve a long way to go”, she concludes, “but I’m currently recruiting a graduate level role and was pleased to see that the shortlist was made up of two males and two females. It wasn’t bias, they were genuinely the best candidates. Maybe this is an indication that the gender split in engineering may slowly be balancing out.”