Learning from experience

Sanna Shabir | 23 Jun 2016 | Comments

It’s that time of year again – National Women in Engineering Day is here! It seems like every year we have more to talk about and more to celebrate. I was recently awarded ‘Apprentice of the Year’ and two of my colleagues, Vicky Stewart and Katherine Ward, made the Telegraph’s ‘Top 50 Women in Engineering’ list.

I was able to take some time out to talk to one of my fellow award winners Vicky, an associate acoustician, about our experiences as female engineers, and how things have changed (for the better!) in the last decade.  All in the backdrop of one of our most famous projects, the London Olympic Park.

Here’s how our conversation went…

Me: So how long have you been at Atkins?

Vicky: I did a placement in 2001 and then started as a graduate in 2003. So that’s 15 years and counting…That could be you next! What do you like most about your apprenticeship?

Me: By combining college and work I get the best of both worlds. I can use what I learn in college at work the next day and vice versa. What’s your favourite part of your job?

V: I love how many different people I get to talk to every day – like you. I’m also really lucky with my STEM coordinator role, there’s two parts to my job and I love both of them.

Me: That sounds ideal! So what was work like when you first started?

V: Technology has really changed things. It’s so much more open these days. Was there anything that surprised you when you first started working?

Me: If I’m being totally honest I found the long days really hard! In school you always have breaks in between classes, but at work it’s non-stop. You soon get used to it though.

V: I hadn’t thought about it before, but that’s totally true. How did you end up balancing work and school?

Me: Every Sunday night I create a to do list for the week ahead, for both my work and study. Doing an apprenticeship has definitely made me very organised! How do you balance work and life?

V: For many years I didn’t! Working in the evenings and weekends was the norm. In the last year though I’ve made a real effort to try to have my evenings to myself. My work/life balance is much better now. Sometimes it does still get hectic on projects, but I know it’s something I’m passionate about it, so just get it done.

Me: That’s a good lesson learned. So do you think things have changed for women in engineering?

V: I was the only girl in my team when I started and now there’s six of us, so it’s a real noticeable difference. Back in the day things would happen – like assuming I would answer the phones because I was the only woman in the office – that just wouldn’t happen today. There’s a lot more women in senior roles now, and I really think engineering companies have realised that it’s a good thing to support diversity. What do your girlfriends think about you doing an engineering apprentice?

Me: They think it’s great that I’m earning and I think they’re a little bit jealous when we all go out shopping together and I have money to spend. They also think I’ve really changed since I started working. They all say that I’m ‘super professional’ and make me talk for the group when we go out because they think I speak really well.

V: It’s great that you’ve given them such a good impression of apprenticeships. Is that what made you want to be a STEM volunteer?

Me: I wanted to do it to give back. I didn’t know what I wanted to study when I was at school and because I liked maths everyone told me to be an accountant. I want to help other people see what engineering is really about, and what being an apprentice is like as well.

V: Well hopefully you’ll inspire lots of other people to follow in your footsteps. Is there any advice you’d give to senior engineers who are looking to take on new apprentices?

Me: Give them time and lots of advice. My first line manager at Atkins also did a work placement, so he knew what it was like and how you could manage work and study. So if you did an apprenticeship you should think about mentoring one – we could learn loads from your experiences! What advice would you give young female engineers?

V: Well for me, my best times as an engineer have been when I’ve put fear to one side and just done something. The best stuff happens when you’re outside your comfort zone. Don’t be afraid to do things that are scary and to put yourself forward.

What really struck me from my conversation with Vicky was how lucky I am to have started working at a time when it’s already recognised that we need to promote women in engineering. And also, how important it is to take the time to talk to senior women in your business – there’s so much to learn from their experiences.

So, happy Women in Engineering Day! I’d be interested to hear what advice you’d give to young female engineers in the comments below.