The Engineering Journey: A Woman’s View
By Joy Burnford
In celebration of the United Nations International Day of Women and Girls in Science, we hear from Dawn Childs, UK Change Director at National Grid plc and President of the Women’s Engineering Society about her trailblazing path as an engineer.
After 23 years as an engineer in the UK’s Royal Air Force (RAF), Dawn Childs made the successful shift to industry by taking on a vastly different role: that of becoming Head of Engineering for infrastructure at London’s Gatwick Airport. From there, she was headhunted to set up the engineering directorate of Merlin Entertainments to establish its engineering policies and protocols across its portfolio of theme parks and attractions. And now National Grid—at the heart of a clean energy future, delivering solutions so that the UK hits its net zero goal.
An impressive career. So, what was the initial excitement of engineering for Childs?
“Quite simply, I enjoyed the subjects at school and wanted to do more. I was sponsored through university by the RAF after joining while at school. My military career was hugely exciting, giving me opportunities to manage teams of up to 1,000 engineers and working with various aircraft around the world.”
A Career Surrounded By Men
Engineering can still typically be perceived as a career for men—with little space for women. Indeed, women make up only 12% of the UK’s engineering workforce. A fair amount of Childs’ career has been spent surrounded by men, and there is some way to go to achieving gender balance in the industry. And there are stories she shares which highlight that there is still a way to go—such as the time an external supplier assumed she was a meeting notetaker as she arrived with notebook in hand. “It’s still engrained in some people that men are the engineers and decision makers, and there can sometimes be assumptions about you based on the way you look, the way you are and that you can’t possibly think technically.”
Only now, at National Grid, does Childs see more female engineers at senior levels, with concerted efforts being made to attract female talent and support their career progression. But, along with the rest of the industry, there is a lot of work still to be done.
Shift The Engineering Message
In her role at National Grid, as President of the Women’s Engineering Society and through her involvement in other professional bodies, Childs has had a clear view of how the sector can encourage more women into engineering.
“So many people have been looking at this for so many years. Yet there is still this big skills gap for engineering in general—but for women in engineering in particular.”
Whatever we have been doing as a society and through education is not enough. Less than 30% of researchers worldwide are women. According to UNESCO data (2014-2016), only 35% of all female students select STEM-related fields in higher education. On a global scale, female students’ enrolment in engineering, manufacturing and construction is only 8%.
“One of the key things we’ve been doing at National Grid is rethinking how we attract —and retain—new talent to the sector and fill the talent pipeline. And not just female talent. Engineering is a fascinating career but, for many, the excitement stems from the change made possible by engineering. Let’s show the impact engineering has on the wider world and solutions to problems, such as climate change. Let’s move beyond the engineering stereotypes of hard hats, hi-vis jackets and spanners.”
The key, Childs argues, is not to get too hung up about the differences between engineering disciplines but to embrace the differences and showcase the very varied careers young talent can have.
And how can we stem the leaky talent pipe once hired?
Blaming motherhood for women leaving the professions is “too simple an explanation”. We must “get the hygiene factors right to make it easy for all women, and men, to navigate parental leave but we need to go beyond that and change the mindset. We need to create more realistic role models to whom women can turn when they are finding it tough—perhaps at specific career or life milestones.”
Covid-19: The Tipping Point For Climate Change
The Covid-19 pandemic has given us an unequivocal view of the impact the way in which we live has on the world and the climate. We have seen clearer skies, wildlife coming back to formerly-polluted areas and measurably cleaner air.
Childs comments: “We are at a tipping point with Covid-19 polarizing the lens for us. There is a climate emergency. We need to drive towards net zero.”
And this is the time for action.
“A study by National Grid showed that 400,000 jobs need to be filled within the energy sector to enable us to transition effectively to net zero by 2050. We need strong talent to fill those roles.”
The same research shows that 83% of women want to help the UK reach its net zero target. “It’s an exciting time for the sector—there’s huge potential to really open up engineering to women who are technically minded and interested, and who want to make a difference and an impact. That can be a more compelling message.”
What would Childs offer as advice to those young women looking to engineering as a profession?
Tips For Those Embarking On An Engineering Career
#1 Be curious
Engineering helps to solve problems. Explore, examine and dig deep. Be interested in the how and the why and be curious as “you don’t know what you don’t know.”
#2 Believe in yourself and acknowledge your value
Questioning your ability and giving in to imposter syndrome has the power to halt the progress of an otherwise exciting career. Be confident and comfortable with your knowledge and your right to sit at the table. “As women, we need to be better at checking ourselves and acknowledging our value—and, importantly, being more proactive when sharing our thinking and opinions and to ‘own’ our presence.”
#3 Build your own career
Understand what is important to you and don’t take on another person’s idea of what it is to have a successful career. Avoid looking around you and comparing yourself to others. Figure out your own career journey and what you want.
#4 Seize opportunities
Across your career, you will be exposed to new ideas and opportunities. Take advantage of these to learn new skills, meet new people and extend your impact.
#5 Embrace the breadth
Engineering has over 30 disciplines. Explore and embrace the difference.
Women In Engineering: The Future
How does Childs see engineering as a profession for women going forward?
“Not only have we found a truer sense of purpose that translates to more people seeking out a career in engineering, but we also have the ‘burning bridge’ of the climate emergency. We have technical challenges that people can now see and understand better than before, and they can see their role in tackling them.”
“We need to get the right minds engaged. We cannot afford to miss out on a significant chunk of our population who could be helping to tackle these issues and who, for whatever reason, haven’t yet considered a career in engineering.”