Network Rail’s programme manager for change, Jenny Webb, is encouraging women to consider a career in engineering as part of Women in Engineering Day today (Tuesday 23 June) as new research has highlighted a lack of female role models within Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) sectors.
A Network Rail survey of more than 2,000 16-21 year-olds in Great Britain, conducted by Savanta ComRes, showed that two-thirds (64%) of total participants and three quarters (77%) of young women asked felt there were not enough female role models within STEM, and just 26% of females intended to pursue careers in STEM fields (though 27% did intend to study further in a STEM area).
When participants were asked if they recognised famous names and faces of STEM figures, more than 80% were familiar with male figures such as Steven Hawking and Sir Isaac Newton, but just 18% knew of Ada Lovelace, who is credited as the first computer programmer for her visionary work in computer science in the 19th century.
Clocking up nearly 30 years on the railway, Jenny, who is also a STEM ambassador, hopes she can inspire the next set of female railway engineers. Jenny’s career started when she took up a maintenance job in Shenfield with British Rail. Since then, she has achieved Chartered Engineer status and, in her own words, can now “put a few letters after my name”. She’s now building her team which is a challenge during a pandemic – but challenges and solving problems is what engineers like Jenny love to do.
With all her experience, Jenny is now leading a massive change programme across the Anglia region, to make track works safer by using 21st century technology to protect staff on track.
Jenny hopes that her experience will inspire other women to consider a role in engineering. She said: “Truthfully I fell into this role by accident. After leaving full-time education, the cost of university education put me off and competition for a job was massive. I applied for numerous roles in banking, insurance etc. Then I saw an ad for British Rail which included technical drawing which I had done. I got the job and didn’t really know what I was in for but after a few weeks, with an amazing mentor and support, I was hooked.”
Like any job, the first few weeks are always a learning curve but Jenny remembers what it was like when she first started out with so few women on the railway’s front line. She said: “It was a bit of a novelty to have a woman on the front line back then and there were a few awkward moments, but never anything bad. There was a lot of banter. There are more women in these roles now so it’s not really a ‘thing’ anymore.”
And Jenny has some good advice for budding female engineers: “Go for it, the variety of work and sense of achievement you can get from it is brilliant. Find yourself a good mentor or work buddy, everyday is a school day, and other engineers love nothing more than to share anecdotes of their own past mistakes.
“Solving engineering problems, coming up with new ways of working, using innovation and new technology still ticks a lot of boxes for me; I guess the kid who loved her box of Lego just grew up and got to play with a bigger version of it.”
National Women in Engineering Day was launched in the UK on 23 June 2014 by the Women’s Engineering Society (WES) to celebrate its 95th anniversary. The day has since grown into a global celebration of women in engineering, achieving UNESCO patronage in 2016 and becoming International Women in Engineering Day in 2017 following interest and enthusiasm from across the world.