Breaking stereotypes: Getting women into engineering
Breaking stereotypes Heather Parkes from the Atomic Weapons Establishment (AWE) talks about her experience at one of the UK’s leading centres of excellence for engineering.
To mark National Women in Engineering day, (June 23) chartered chemical engineer, Heather, who has been working at AWE since 2005, is keen to encourage the next generation of female students into the field.
Working together to keep our world safe and secure AWE in Berkshire employs leading experts in a range of disciplines – scientists, engineers, technicians and craftspeople. This unique workforce delivers warheads for the UK’s deterrent, and uses its nuclear expertise to support national security.
Here Heathers explains why engineering is a great career path for women.
Why did you chose AWE?
My main draw to AWE was my desire to work in a challenging environment. Ultimately as a chemical engineer I was intrigued by the variety of scope of the technical work AWE engineers do. We are a centre of scientific, engineering and technological excellence, with some of the most advanced research, design and production facilities in the world. AWE is committed to supporting diversity and the development of female talent. Through its Skills Academy, schools liaison and technical outreach work, AWE aims to build a pipeline of its own female talent by fostering and encouraging an interest in science and technology.
Why and how did you get into engineering?
Early on I gravitated to mathematics and science subjects. Whilst completing my A-levels, maths, chemistry, physics and further maths I participated in an initiative to motivate students into engineering - The Engineering Education Scheme, run by the Engineer Development Trust. Through this programme I was involved in an engineering project which lasted for six months. The organisation set us up with a local engineering firm. The process taught me a lot about working in the field of engineering, as a part of a team and how to apply the theoretical learning to a practical role. After this experience, I knew that I wanted to embark on a path in engineering but it also solidified for me chemical engineering. I think experiences like this can help people early on find their path.
Why do you enjoy engineering?
I think a large part of the reason why fewer women take up engineering is a perception issue. There is still a belief out there that engineers have to get their hands dirty fixing things, when in actual fact there is a very diverse scope for a career path within engineering. The Women in Engineering Society are trying to break this stereotype along with initiatives like the annual WISE awards, which AWE is delighted to now champion. I love engineering because I feel challenged on a daily basis in my role. Being an engineer I get to create solutions to real-world problems. That’s one of the unique aspects of being an engineer - we work to fix problems that impact us all. The ideal place to get to is one were we don’t need to encourage women into engineering. But until we reach that point days like today, National Women in Engineering day (June 23rd) are crucial to spread the word about this great career path.
How is AWE supporting women in engineering?
AWE has supported me on the path to becoming chartered and I’m now supporting other engineers on this path.
AWE networks with like-minded organisations across the UK to support women in engineering. Specifically AWE now sponsors one of the annual WISE awards - The WISE leadership award. It is important to remember that on a day-to-day basis, I’m treated as an engineer, not as a female engineer.
How would you encourage a young woman into this field?
By inspiring them, like I was inspired, by letting them know how engineers impact the world. Nearly everything we touch in this world has been engineered from mobile phones, clothes to food. I would also tell you women that a career in engineering offers a path of opportunity that can lead them across the world. I have many engineering friends who have combined their passion for travel with the love for the job. Being an engineer can take you many places.