Science at Cambridge: ‘It’s good to see more women in engineering’

1d-rachel-attwood-photoUniversity‘It’s good to see more women in engineering’, a phrase I hear often, being female and studying engineering, entering my second year.

In Britain there’s an idea that engineering means men, usually wearing muddy boots and hi-vis jackets, maybe working on the side of the road or railway line. It’s a very skewed image of one of the fastest growing global industries! What about the structural engineers who are office based, designing anything from a simple footbridge to a monstrous timber-based skyscraper? What about the electronic and information engineers who design the software for your latest iPhone?

And more importantly, what about the women who make up a modest, but significant, 9% of the current engineering workforce?

I became interested in engineering through my Dad, who was a draughtsman for Dowty Mining. When I was young it was always ‘How does this work?’ and ‘Why?’. Later on, I took part in a bridge design challenge at secondary school, using rolled up paper tubes to make the strongest structure possible. I later attended two design and build Smallpiece Trust engineering courses (railways and structures). Having thoroughly enjoyed both and having been inspired by people working in the industry (both male and female), I set my sights on studying engineering, and where better than at Cambridge.

For the first two years the engineering course at Cambridge covers four areas; Mechanical, Structural, Electronic and Mathematical Methods. I’ve just finished an 8-week work placement (4 weeks’ industrial experience are required by the end of second year), with Graham Construction, working on site at the construction of Kenilworth Railway Station. Yes, I have been wearing hi-vis and muddy boots, but I’ve loved it! I’ve learned the basics of surveying, from using a high-tech total (measuring) station to taking measurements with a tape measure, which will set me up well for when I specialise in Civil Engineering in third year. I’ve also learned about planning, risk assessments and management plans. Imagine if the track wasn’t properly monitored and nearby excavation caused the rails to twist? It could end in a fatal crash!

On the project, I was the only female, surrounded by a team of men. This situation is all too common nationally and is why I want to encourage more girls and women to follow a career in Engineering; it’s not all how the media suggests! Don’t just take my word for it, do some research into the paths engineering can lead you. You could be working on building sites if that appeals to you, but you could also work on autopilot software or innovative new materials for example. You could even help solve the energy crisis.

Don’t let the stereotypes put you off, don’t let comments like ‘but isn’t that for boys’ get in your way. Consider engineering, or any form of STEM, for an exciting, ever-changing career, where every day brings new challenges and innovative ideas to tackle some of the world’s biggest problems.

Rachel Attwood
Undergraduate student

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