The life & times of an HVAC Engineer

{December 5, 2011}   A little of (y)our time

It's not for girls!

I’ve seen a lot of schemes & read a lot of articles about women in science, engineering & technology of late. The articles are all about how only 7% of engineers in the UK are female, why this might be and what could or should we be doing about it.

In my humble opinion, much of it is about perception. Teachers, pupils and parents perceive our industry to be dirty, dangerous, boring, unethical or just plain Not For Girls.

But this perception doesn’t just put off young women from entering the profession, but also many of the best young male minds as well. Whether or not you agree with the positive discrimination taking place to entice girls into STEM careers, the danger is that if we don’t do something to address the image of engineering then very few youngsters will have any interest in joining it; whatever their gender, race, religion or socio-economic background.

Thankfully perception is relatively inexpensive, albeit time consuming, to change. But in order to do so we need engineers to talk to the public about what they do, why it’s important and what makes it exciting.

As Sir John Parker , President of the Royal Academy of Engineering, says of engineers: We are not automatic seekers of publicity, maybe we should take responsibility […] to explain our profession

There are loads of engineers and scientists who are willing to do just that, there are over 29,000 STEM Ambassadors for starters! As individuals many engineers can see the need for, and the fulfillment to be had from, school & public engagement. The problem that they, and other willing volunteers, face though, is that they can’t find the time to interact with schools.

Wherever I can I make time, I’ll do evening, weekend or online events, or I do short events during the school day & then make up the hours at another time. When I can’t make up the time my company is generally very supportive and allows me a certain amount of leeway. This is hard won and wearing though, and isn’t plausible for everyone currently. Companies need to recognise the need for the profile of engineering and engineers to be raised. The need for a career in engineering to be seen as respectable, desirable and most of all: exciting!

So I throw down the gauntlet. If companies genuinely are interested in having a diverse workforce. If they want to ensure that there will be enough young engineers to fill the places of those who will be retiring over the next 5-15 years. If they want to be able to grow their businesses with new ideas and new people…they will have to commit to not just allowing but encouraging their employees to spend company time on engaging with the public, especially with schools.

So what will you, and your company, commit to?

I was asked recently, as part of the Ingenious Women project & being a STEM Ambassador, to give a talk to FE lecturers so that they can engage & motivate their own students studying STEM subjects and encourage them to consider STEM careers.

My briefing was: “You will have 15-20 minutes to talk about your own career and the barriers you had to overcome. What were/are the good things you have experienced and what inspired you to become a scientist/engineer?

I really want to do a good job with this seminar as it will enable others to inspire far more pupils than I can reach alone, so I’ve been putting a lot of thought into it. I’m sharing my answers here as they might be of interest to more folk than just the Birmingham FE lecturers. Though if if you’re from Matthew Boulton College you might want to stop here or you’ll be reading spoilers!

So what barriers have I had to overcome?
– Technical understanding: I found Further Maths very challenging at A-Level, but I’m so glad I took it because when I got to university and found I was studying the same things in the ‘Advanced Engineering Mathematics’ module it all just clicked into place in my head & suddenly it was (comparatively) easy…everyone else around me was really struggling though, so I was glad to be able to help! Engineering isn’t easy, but once the difficult bits start clicking into place it’s very interesting and personally I found the technical challenges very enjoyable.

– Sexism: Even in this day and age there is still something of an obstacle to women progressing in engineering, and as such we’re few & far between. On the whole I find it doesn’t matter to most people what my gender is, but occasionally I come across real corkers. I think my most painful memory along those lines occurred at my Grandfather’s funeral. I was in my early twenties, studying engineering at university. I was stood next to my Mother when one of my Grandfather’s old gentleman acquaintances said to her “I don’t know why you’re letting her study engineering, she’ll never get anywhere with it, she’s a girl”. To be honest though, comments like that tend to spur me on to prove them wrong rather than being a true barrier…though pay disparity can still be an issue.
– Work load: Engineering degrees, and engineering jobs, are not an easy ride, there’s a lot of work to be done. Sometimes that can be very tough, for example; when all of your friends at Uni are going out & having fun or spending time relaxing whilst you’re working away in the labs or in lectures. Even sometimes just getting up in the morning for lectures while everyone else is having a lie-in seems very unfair, but I do love the level of knowledge and respect that the hard graft has bestowed upon me.

image credit: LorenGul on IgoUgo

What are the good things I’ve experienced?
– Having a positive impact: I love opening the bathroom cabinet to get out a medicine & being able to say “I made the factory that made this” – it’s very rewarding
– Problem solving: There’s something deeply satisfying about coming up against a technical challenge & finding a good solution that everyone (from clients to construction workers) is happy with. Or spending weeks tweaking a building & all its services so it passes validation just in time for an audit! Phew – what a relief!
– Seeing interesting places & finding out how things are made: For example I really enjoyed spending time in Cadbury’s research & development labs/kitchens in Bourneville – mmm chocolatey! I’ve also had the pleasure of travelling to Paris for meetings, and heading back to the airport from a Swiss meeting via a boat trip on Lake Geneva – I do love a bit of travel, I love coming home again too, but you can’t beat an all expenses paid trip to Paris!

image credit: racecar engineering

And what on earth inspired me to become an engineer in the first place?
– My Grandfather (he wanted to be an engineer, and had a fantastic workshop in his back garden where he made the most incredible working scale models of trains, boats and traction engines, he also volunteered on the Welshpool & Llanfair light railway)
– Exciting engineering projects like Formula One, I used to watch races with my parents as a kid & I so wanted to know how it all worked
– I’ve always loved solving problems and getting my head round how things work…if I get to be creative & use some maths & physics on route then so much the better!

A few more things also confirmed to me that engineering was what I wanted to do:
– Going on a Headstart course (a week in a university engineering department)
– Older friends who were studying engineering or working as engineers (you may not like to admit it Mr. Farmer & Mr. Prestwich, for reasons of age or ego, but it’s true)
– A couple of my teachers who spoke to me about my aptitude in their subjects (maths and design technology) and encouraged me down the engineering path (thank-you Ms. Maginnis & Mr. Harrison)
– The respect that people I knew had for engineers

So that’s why I’m an engineer…what influenced your career choice(s)?

Ingenious Donkey

Making an ass out of me

A week or so ago I thought I’d finished writing the specification and producing the drawings for the air handling units for the project I’m currently working on. Then I sat down to review all of the specifications with engineers from other disciplines, and with the buyers. It quickly became apparent that I, and many of the other engineers, had made assumptions about what items had been included in other department’s specifications. It’s really not a problem discovering these things at the current stage of the project – we just add, or occasionally delete, items into our specifications to make sure that all the interfaces are covered. If we hadn’t stopped to have that review though, there would have been a few gaps that would have left us looking pretty silly once items were installed on site. After all, it’s no good specifying, paying for, and installing equipment if no-one provides a power supply to it!

One of the items that had been left out for example was the mesh in the low level extract scoops. You normally extract air from a room via grilles in the ceiling and the ductwork contractor provides all the necessary items. However, in clean rooms it’s often preferable to extract air at a low level, in which case the architectural contractor forms the ducts within the room as they’re making the rest of the room. That’s fine so long as they’re aware of all the bits you need within that ductwork – like a mesh to stop pieces of paper or rubber gloves or cleaning cloths being sucked up into the air extract system. Thankfully we found out that they hadn’t included the mesh in their specification and now it is in there. I wouldn’t have envied the commissioning engineers trying to figure out what was wrong with the new system only to discover the filters, which are intended for very tiny particles, were covered in rubber gloves!

Another assumption which has been made a few times recently is that I’m a secretary or document controller. Or more simply, when people haven’t seen me in a room, they often assume the meeting room or office is going to have no women in it. It can be a little frustrating having to regularly put people straight & explain that I’m not just there to take the meeting minutes but can also make useful contributions to the discussions as well. That said, I’m sure part of that is my age & youthful looks rather than just my gender – I have been ID’d when buying alcohol within the last 6 months after all! The second assumption, that there will be no women in any given engineering office/meeting room can actually provide a certain amount of amusement. The mischievous, mould-breaking streak in me rather enjoys seeing people blush beetroot red as they’ve said ‘morning gents’ then realised I’m there. I also find it rather curious how embarrassed many male engineers become having realised they’ve sworn in front of a woman as well. It’s not like my delicate donkey ears haven’t heard such words before after all…

Last but not least, I went on mentor training last week in preparation for having a 16-19 year old mentee from the local school’s Engineering Diploma programme. One of the main aspects of the training was about not assuming the mentees will know what we consider to be the most basic of work place behaviour. It was fascinating listening to previous students’ testimonials. Prior to the help of a mentor they had made mistakes on work experience such as answering a work phonecall by saying “yo”, or accidentally making a cup of mixed tea and coffee and then being too embarrassed by their error to do anything but drink the horrible concoction.

As you can see, over the last week it’s becoming increasingly clear to me that the saying, and title of this blog, “when you assume, you make an ass out of you and me” really is rather true. If I can try and make a few less assumptions perhaps I’ll avoid some embarrassing moments, not just for myself but for others too. After all, who wants to be an ass?

et cetera
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