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Ettie Unwin. Photograph: Aidan Chan

Jesus College PhD candidate talks about National Women in Engineering Day 2016

June 23rd is the third National Women in Engineering Day. Ettie Unwin (2014), a PhD engineering student, blogs about her career.

I have been very fortunate that my route into engineering was straightforward, but many girls, even though they may enjoy maths and sciences, are missing out on the fantastic careers that are available in engineering. Women make up a surprisingly small proportion of people taking up engineering careers and research suggests that a major reason for this is that, when they are making career defining decisions, girls are not well informed about what engineering involves and the type of jobs that could be available.

National Women in Engineering Day (NWED) is a brilliant way to start to combat these misunderstandings, by drawing attention to the women who have gone into these careers and the types of jobs they are doing.

I am still at an early stage in my career; having completed my first degree at Southampton, I am now doing a PhD at the University of Cambridge, but already I am doing work that is a million miles away from what most girls at school would think of as being engineering. I am working on a project that looks at controlling and optimising porous media flows, mainly using maths and computer programming. The work can be really useful in environmental projects, impacting global warming through more efficient CO2 capture in various situations and through better geothermal energy storage. This perhaps helps tackle one of the misconceptions about engineering. Girls are often drawn to vocational careers like teaching or nursing because they want to make the world a better place. I would argue, however, that engineering can be just as important to the public good as these careers. An engineer can be working on solving problems to help people every day and, as in my case, helping tackle important issues that affect us all.

Awareness raising activities like NWED are excellent, but it is also important that all school children should have access to work experience in different industries to help them to understand what different careers involve and to dismiss the false impressions that a lot of people have about science and engineering.

As well as enjoying a lot of work experience at school I also undertook a work placement with DSTL (Defence Science and Technology Laboratories) in my gap year before university as part of the Year in Industry programme run by the education charity EDT. This enabled me to see my school subjects being utilised in real commercial projects and it was my first experience of serious computer programming, which is something that I have really come to enjoy and which is an important part of my PhD. Having had this experience meant that I knew which modules I wanted to pursue in my degree. I could reassure myself that I was studying the right subjects by looking back and seeing how they were applied practically on my placement.

My advice to girls who are still at school is to study the subjects you enjoy. If that includes maths and physics, you may well want to consider engineering as a career. Find out for yourself what engineering is about through work experience and by taking every opportunity you can to talk to people in different types of engineering.

My advice to engineering companies is to get involved in NWED and in work experience projects such as those run by EDT. It is important for young people to have an insight into engineering in the real world. Having a real person to talk to, ask questions of and potentially be mentored by, is invaluable in encouraging students to see that this is genuinely something they can do and which offers a rewarding career in every sense. Girls shouldn’t assume that engineering isn’t for them, they should find out more.

This article has been written by Ettie Unwin and the opinions expressed are those of the author. Versions of this article have been published elsewhere.

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