Flying high as a systems engineer
Recruiting women in STEM Loraine McIlree is a woman in what remains largely a man’s world: as a systems engineer working at Airbus, almost all her engineering colleagues are male.
But she finds the work as enjoyable and fulfilling as any of them, and she has had nothing but encouragement in her career, starting at school.
“My sixth form college was strong in maths and physics, which I enjoyed, but engineering was not on my radar,” she says. “But then the college offered a free lunch in return for listening to a talk on engineering. I went for the lunch – and discovered that lots of people don’t realize what a good fun career it is to be in.”
Systems engineer working at Airbus
Loraine went on to read mechanical engineering at the University of Bristol, somewhat to her family and friends’ bemusement – “They said, ‘Will you have greasy hands? Do manual work?’” – and after considering a career in the financial sector, went for engineering instead. She first joined a small engineering company making aircraft parts and then moved to Airbus, where she started as a systems engineer working on landing gear . She was then promoted to airworthiness manager, following certification procedures for the wings, fuel systems and landing gear and is now working on the chief engineer’s team on the A380, the largest commercial aircraft in the world. “At Airbus, we range from private planes seating 100 people to over 500 people on the A380,” she explains.
Along the way Loraine got married and had two children, a girl and a boy, now 11 and eight. She says of her male colleagues, “They were brilliant. They were scared of me being pregnant in the office in case something happened to me, but they were very supportive,” and after maternity leave was back in her career. “It’s great, because I can work flexible hours,” she says. However, it was the arrival of those children that set her off on a new path, becoming a STEM ambassador for schools.
“I was in the school to collect my children and I saw they’d been asked to draw pictures based on the topic of giants,” she says. “One of them had drawn the plane I was working on. So I went in to talk to them about the plane and how big it is by explaining they could all get on with two grown-ups and all their friends and there would still be room for more. I explained how we made the plane and it all went on from there I do a lot of work in local schools because people see the Airbus site but don’t know what we actually do. It is also important to talk to them because when children are asked what they want to do when they grow up, their reply will typically be influenced by someone they’ve met.”
Last year, Airbus got involved in the Industrial Cadets scheme, whereby 11-19 year olds are mentored by industry professionals through specific assignments to teach them about a possible career. “I was a mentor to a group of girls in a local school,” says Loraine. “They were given an environmental task to do: to pick a building in the school and research it to make it more environmentally friendly. They had to do the research, work out the benefits and the possible financial rewards. They wrote a report in a typical engineering style using clear and concise language and made a presentation to Airbus. They learned to assign roles, communicate clearly, understand what has to be done and follow through what has to be done. It was a competition – and we won.”
Loraine was also a founder member of Airbus UK’s women’s network, holding lunchtime lectures with internal and external speakers and addressing topics from new material technologies to developing confidence. International Women’s Day was celebrated with a whole raft of seminars, lectures and workshops. “These were not just for women, but if something is arranged by women, more women tend to attend,” she says. Her older child is a daughter: would Loraine like her to follow her into engineering? “I don’t think she will – but yes, I would love it,” she says.