Question: What kind of career did Labour MP Chi Onwurah have as an electrical engineer?
Answer: She travelled the world building transformative infrastructure which had a huge impact on people’s lives.

 

Chi Onwurah
MP for Newcastle upon Tyne and former electrical engineer

During the 20 years Labour MP Chi Onwurah spent working as an electrical engineer, women made huge progress in law, medicine and many other professions. But female participation in electrical engineering stayed the same as two decades earlier. “That depressed me when I left engineering for politics. We can’t wait another quarter of a century for changes in engineering,” she said.

Onwurah says many girls make subconscious assumptions about engineering which bear little relation to reality. “The best decision I ever made was to become an engineer. My career was fantastic. I worked in very well-paid jobs — better than MPs —and travelled a great deal, to Paris, London, Washington DC and Lagos. I was involved in brilliant projects that helped thousands of people,” she said.

Onwurah agrees with academic research suggesting that women are drawn to professions which allow them to help people. Medicine – such a popular choice for women - is a prime example. But engineers are not routinely given credit for the massive impact they have on lives, she says. “In fact, engineers save more lives than doctors. Civil engineers bring water, roads and bridges, which delivers hope and transforms communities. Clean water saves more lives than anything else in the world,” she said.

Onwurah helped to build the first GSM network for mobile phones in Nigeria, which transformed the country’s communication abilities. “Before the project, only 1 per cent of homes had telephone capability and fixed-line access. Now, 50 per cent of the country has access to a mobile phone. As an engineer, it is so fulfilling when you see people using something that you built. You move on to another job, but your work lives on forever.”

Onwurah also insists that engineering can be a more flexible career than many women realise. “I knew quite a few women consultants who only needed to work two or three days a week on projects, then they had time with their families,” she said.

She acknowledges, however, that some firms could do more to help women return to engineering after career breaks. “I tell companies that lots of women lose confidence about coming back as they think technology has moved on. But if they are trained in engineering fundamentals, up-skilling them is not such a challenge. Companies need to offer that training to attract them back.”