A woman’s work: Interview with the IMechE's Philippa Oldham
Increasing the number of women in engineering is an imperative. So what is the experience of a career in the profession like for a woman?
If anything were going to put Philippa Oldham off engineering, then her early experience at a university interview would have been it. She takes up the story: "The professor in charge told me that women don't and shouldn't do engineering. He was serious. I said that I'd come here for an interview and he restated that he didn't think women should do engineering and I said 'OK, then. I'll go to the pub'. So I did."
Given that Oldham is now the Institution of Mechanical Engineers' head of transport and manufacturing, however, it is safe to say that she has emphatically proved her interlocutor wrong.
However, she is at pains to point out that this experience has been very far from typical for her in what she concedes is a male-dominated profession. In fact, she cites another female engineer as the most negative voice on the subject of women in engineering she has heard in her working life.
"As a woman in engineering, you have to be realistic and accept that there simply aren't that many of us," she says. "I've been lucky in that the men I've worked with have always been very supportive and I think it's about making sure that women are given equal opportunities to have access to projects. It's about the work you do."
In fact, the first obstacle Oldham encountered in her career had nothing to do with her gender. She says: "I was in the bottom set for English and was told that I was poor at English and even that I was stupid by teachers, but my parents said that I couldn't be stupid if I was in the top sets for maths and science. Later, we did find out that I was dyslexic, but I was certainly lucky at that stage that I was so well supported."
Perhaps in part due to this experience, she is forthright on the subject of schools and their failure to encourage engineers. "I think schools are a real problem," she says. "I don't actually think there is any careers advice in many schools… All too often, advice about engineering is geared towards cars or trains or planes, whereas actually, there's bio-engineering, the medical and fashion worlds. There's so much diversity children don't get told about."
This lack of advice, she feels, is a major obstacle to girls aiming to become engineers. "A lot of the time I don't think it's that girls don't want to become engineers," she says. "It's that the people around them are likely to put them off. Parents and teachers might be unsupportive because they think it's dirty and male-dominated."
This was not a problem for Oldham, however. Citing "a passion for F1 and motorbikes" as her key reason for becoming an engineer, Oldham pursued this interest from a young age, going to work in her local garage during her GCSE years. Following this, she applied to a number of Formula One teams for work. McLaren came back to her and suggested she apply to Ilmor Engineering in Brixworth, Northamptonshire, where she worked in her summers, learning to build an F1 engine.
If stereotypes were to be believed, a shopfloor would be exactly where one might expect a young woman to have encountered discrimination, but, says Oldham, nothing could have been further from the truth. "Yes, it was a shopfloor and it was full of men," she says, "but there were never any derogatory comments. Everyone was working together and wanted to help you. It's always been very supportive because they want people to learn and they want to teach you."
If confirmation were needed that this was what she wanted to do for a living, it came at Ilmor. "One of the things people don't understand is the speed at which things get designed and built in F1," she says. "There I was, not degree-qualified – I hadn't even done my A-Levels at the time – but I was watching Mika Hakkinen's car on the track and thinking 'My God! Something I made is on that car. It's an amazing feeling to be part of something like that."
With this experience under her belt, Oldham went on to gain a Master's in Mechanical Engineering from Birmingham University, where, in her final year, she undertook a project on combating low-tech terrorism that led her on to a role as design engineer at defence contractor QinetiQ.
"Having worked at Ilmor looking at engines," she says, "I was on the lookout for everything else that was high-tech, so defence was an obvious next step, so I joined QinetiQ."
Again at QinetiQ, Oldham received great support from colleagues, but was still amused at times by the prevailing attitudes. "My name is sometimes shortened to 'Phil'," she says, "And when I was at QinetiQ, the senior design engineer with whom I used to work called John Quarrell used to take great delight in saying to people that he was going to send 'Phil' along to a job. I'd get there, they'd look at me and say 'Are you here to take the minutes?' and I'd say 'No, I'm your design engineer, but as a woman I can multi-task, so I'll take the minutes too, if you like!'"
From design engineer at QinetiQ's Malvern offices, Oldham moved to Farnborough to become product engineer and ultimately product manager for the company's £150m aerospace business.
In May 2011, however, she took on the challenge of her current role with the IMechE. Here, she says, her job is: "To work within an organisation of over 100,000 members and to communicate to the media and the general public the vital role engineering plays in our society".
The subject of women in engineering therefore remains close to her heart. However, she is keen to emphasises that the only criterion on which any engineer should be judged is their work.
She says: "In today's society, we're all measured by objectives and delivery… if you do a good design project, the person for whom you've done it will have you back regardless. What matters is whether you can deliver on time and to budget."
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