Top female engineers tell students how to succeed in a male-dominated industry

Motivation, passion and an opportunistic attitude will help women get ahead in their engineering careers.

‘Think about your elevator pitch!’ That was the advice given to female engineering students who attended the Engineer Your Future day organised by TARGETjobs Events.

Sandi Rhys Jones OBE, a leading figure in the engineering and construction industries, told students that it is vital to understand your motivation, as most women in engineering are asked why they are doing it. Surprisingly, a show of hands revealed that fewer than half of the 100+ students present knew why they were in engineering.

Sandi shared her own passion for the industry, enthusing: ‘I have a childlike sense of wonder when I see an aeroplane take off, even though I know how it does it. I still find it incredible to visit a muddy site and then see it turn into a motorway interchange, or be in a building like this and it stands up. We need to bring back our sense of wonder.’

Be enthusiastic and grab opportunities

The message came out loud and clear that to be a success, it’s vital to choose work that you are enthusiastic about, then grab any opportunities that come your way.

Angela Seeney from Shell gave a concrete example of where seeking out challenges can lead to. ‘We had a young female engineer from the US who went straight from our graduate scheme to being a plant manager in Texas,’ she revealed, adding that few employees would be given this level of responsibility at such an early stage. ‘On the graduate scheme she did placements in the most challenging, remote locations – she didn’t take the easy route and it gave her the experience she needed to progress faster.’

Sharan Gill from Transport for London stressed: ‘Enthusiasm is key – people will see this and be willing to give your new, interesting work projects or interesting experiences outside work.’ Rachel Gray from Cisco added: ‘You need to go where your heart leads you. Be flexible and opportunistic. If something comes up, jump on it. If it doesn’t work out it’s not a disaster – you can always go back.’

Develop confidence and ditch the guilt

Ella Jobson at Caterpillar explained that having confidence in herself helped her get to where she is today, adding: ‘Focus on being an engineer, rather than worrying about being a woman in a male-dominated environment.’ Sandi Rhys Jones warned students: ‘Never use the dirty word “only”,’ as in “I’m only an engineer.”

The engineers also stressed the importance of not allowing domestic worries to impact upon confidence and focus at work. ‘Get whatever help you need,’ advised Angela Seeney at Shell, ‘And not just when you have children. Get yourself a cleaner, even a gardener.’ Sandi Rhys Jones stated that women need to ‘Ditch the guilt and focus on doing one thing at a time. There’s no point being at work feeling guilty about a domestic chore that needs doing, or being at home thinking you should be doing a work task. Never worry about the frozen peas going grey.’

Top tips from happiness coach

The engineers were joined by Alexandra Watson, a happiness and success coach whose claims to fame include coaching The X Factor winner Leona Lewis.

Alexandra Watson introduced her concept of ‘superconfidence’, explaining: ‘The difference between confidence and superconfidence is that you can’t fake the latter. Superconfidence is about how you think about yourself. Lots of women are apologetic for being clever, ambitious or driven. Don’t apologise for this – own it. If you are superconfident, people can’t help but notice you.’

Her views on happiness tied in closely with the engineers’ comments on enthusiasm driving success. Alexandra explained: ‘People think “If I’m successful, then I’ll be happy.” It’s the other way round. Happiness has nothing to do with external factors such as your career or your boyfriend. You have to create your happiness yourself through your approach to life. Sometimes we can be like a candle in the wind and let a late train or a rude person ruin our day. Don’t let them.’ She added: ‘You need to be your own best friend – treat yourself like a really good best friend would.’

Alexandra was also in agreement on the need to stretch yourself, stating: ‘There’s no such thing as failure, only feedback. You’ll always have fear and challenges. They won’t go away but will make your stronger. Welcome challenges as a gift to grow and get to the next level.’