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Women in Engineering: Another Inspiring Interview

20/04/21 Cathy Swain - CertRP Senior Consultant, Contract & Interim

Let’s Inspire More Young Women to Fall in Love with Engineering

Hi Aisha, thank you for taking the time to discuss your routes into engineering! So first, tell us about yourself!

Hi! My name is Aisha Mehmood, and I am a Medical Device Engineer at Inspiration Healthcare. I am a First-Class graduate in Mechanical Engineering with an Integrated Masters from Imperial College, London. My favourite pastime is to cook; a family tradition passed down from my Grandma and my way of expressing myself. Typically, I cook meals based on the season although I’m currently obsessed with baking large NY-Style cookies. I once brought 30 into work and they were gone by lunch! I find that food brings people together regardless of background, gender, or religion, it’s just a common ground and such an ice breaker.

So as a Medical Device Engineer with a Mechanical bias, tell me what made you choose to become an engineer?

I was fortunate that I went to an all-girls high school that had an Engineering Specialism, something quite rare now that I look back. Being the eldest, I was the first to go to High School, so engineering as a specialism seemed normal to me as I had no comparison. There was lots of encouragement around engineering activities and STEM days. I was good at Maths, Physics and naturally good at school. Physics classes and engineering classes were always full even during A-Levels. I also was fortunate enough to have teachers who did not just ‘teach’ engineering but were passionate about the subject. I LOVED to solve problems and I was lucky enough whilst growing up to be able to explore my options without any gender bias or stereotype; something I wasn’t confronted with until outside of school. I remember going to an ‘Arkwright Engineering Scholarship interview’ and realising I was the only girl there and thinking ‘this is different’. Even applying to universities and going to outreach projects external from school, I soon came to realise I was a minority.

So, being in an all-girls high school with engineering in the curriculum helped to aid your path?

Definitely. It involved more extracurricular activities and subjects with a focus on or around engineering. My sister went to a different all-girls high school many years later which did not have as much emphasis on Science or Design Technology, meaning that the uptake in those classes wasn’t as high in comparison. Although my school was strict in the sense where that you had to do triple science, a language, and technology, for GCSEs it helped to give me variety rather than a sole focus.

With engineering being in your education early on in your secondary education, including emphasis on science and technology, did that help to steer you to engineering?

Yes, I think it did whilst also helping with my confidence. I never felt like I didn’t deserve to be an engineer or have the question ‘should I be doing this?’. From an external point of view, being from a cultural background, it was unheard of to be a female engineer. At school, they emphasised on how many people went to engineering and the importance of engineers. It was an expected and accepted career path which gave me such confidence in my choices at a young age. When others said ‘Women shouldn’t be Engineers’ I thought ‘Why not? There are so many from my school’. It was encouraging and celebrated. When I went to university, being a minority had its challenges but luckily I had built the foundation that I CAN be an Engineer.

Did your Engineering experience start from Year 7 or at a later stage in education?

There was not a specific point, but engineering was always around, it was cool, and I loved problem solving. When it got to GCSE selection time, I asked ‘what does an Engineer do?’ The options were limitless, so I investigated what did I need to be an engineer. Most subjects were already mandatory so I looked at what else I could do to enhance my experience. I chose German, Product Design, Business to help with commercial environments and Art as I loved to be creative and thought it would be less structured compared to my other subjects. We were also tasked with looking into careers, the opportunities engineering could bring, I realised I could also apply the principles elsewhere if necessary. I then choose Maths, Physics, Economics and Design Technology for A Levels.

Based on your experience, do you think if schools promoted engineering more positively like the experience you had personally, that more women would pursue this career path?

Yes. My initial thoughts were that an engineer comes to fix your gas or internet issues, a man in overalls fixing things and that is a general perception. If schools took away that stereotype and showed how cool engineering is, it could break down that stigma. Engineering is practical and creative which are skills we develop from nursery age, but then there comes a point where we do not problem solve but simply revise information. Perhaps if there were more hands-on and problem-solving methodologies combined with research and analysis, it could appeal to so many more.

More of a kinaesthetic approach and further emphasis on the wide varieties of paths within engineering would be beneficial? Should it be part of the curriculum?

Yes, and Yes! It taught me so much more than leading me to my career path. If people understood further about the technology, the projects, the problem solving, and processes involved, it would change perception. It also teaches incredible life skills! There will be times when things do not go right or to plan, so what do you do in that situation? Engineering teaches you that you cannot always have everything, and you need to make compromises. Then reviewing the process and learning what you could change or do differently? Then you’ve learnt something! Even if someone studies engineering and becomes a play writer, you have the process cycle skills and can take constructive feedback and iterate towards better outputs. I believe it will make people more rounded and give them the ability to collaborate further.

So not only having engineering in the curriculum to enhance the availability of future engineers (obviously a great ultimate goal) but also as it would help with life skills?

Exactly that! I feel that in a lot of careers I have seen, I could probably adapt to the engineering skills I have. I listen to stakeholders and what people want and communicate ideas. When I first joined Dyson, I joined the Fluid Dynamics team, something that I was not overly interested in as it was my worst subject at Uni. I asked my manager, ‘why did you pick me?’. His response was ‘technical knowledge is something you can learn by research and going through textbooks. I look for the skills where you can apply knowledge learnt’. It made me think that although it would be great to know everything, it was not what I needed to succeed. I just needed to use my knowledge, information available and apply it to solve a problem. A useful skill to several jobs. 

You took Mechanical Engineering as your degree, what led you to a mechanical bias?

Starting from a methodical process, at school I found out what I was good at. With my German GCSE, I applied to the German Embassy to become a Youth Ambassador to help build connections between UK/Germany. They held an engineering event at the Imperial College which was amazing! Although, one thing that stood out to me was that in the electronics building there were male facilities on every floor but female facilities on every other floor. It astounded me that there was a building designed on the basis there would not be a high expectation of female engineers. This motivated me further that I wanted to go here as a woman to study engineering and that I deserve to study there! I then looked at what they offer; one of the top 10 universities in the world and close to family so it ticked all the boxes.

I then did a Civil Engineering placement at a large Consultancy and decided it was not for me. I looked at Chemical Engineering, but the chemistry was not my strongest subject. I looked at Electronics Engineering, but with my Physics experience I just could not get my head around charges and voltages; even reading through the Charlie Coulomb story, it would not sink in. I Loved Design Technology, building things and working out how things interact, and I found that mechanical engineering encompasses that. It also helped to keep my options open rather than pigeonholing to one sector. So that’s how 16-year-old me reached that decision.

Did they ever get a female facility on each floor?

I’m not sure about the Electrical Engineering Building but when redesigning my department, they did include 2 on each floor. We had a department lead who was female and she provided a lot of pastoral care, having been in the industry for a long time she made the department feel more equal. They also have a Female Mechanical Engineering Support Group too which is great!

So, completing work experience, working to your strengths, and knowing what you did not want to do, helped your future decision?

Being able to keep my options open was a huge factor too. There was point of wanting to be an Economist. If I did Economics, it would close being a Mechanical Engineer however by choosing Mechanical Engineering I could still potentially work in economics. It is such a huge decision to start planning your life choice from the age of 13/14. Even at the point of university knowing that it is £9,000 per year and an emphasis of the importance of choosing correctly, it makes it a very anxious time so that you do not choose incorrectly. Therefore, I appreciate how lucky I am that I had so much direction.

Then you started your Mechanical Engineering degree at Imperial College. How long did that last?

My Integrated Masters Degree was 5 years including a placement year, which I was lucky enough to do at Dyson. I choose an Integrated Masters to incorporate the want of becoming Chartered later so decided to do it all in one go. A big decision to make at 17, but one I am thankful I made.

I did 3 years of studies before my placement although it was only supposed to be 2. I was in an accident during my second year meaning I was not at University for 6 months. When I returned, I spoke with the Head of Department about my options. He explained I could pause from before the accident as I was doing well and was on track and could re-join the course after some time out. This would take my degree to 6 years; at the same time, it would take me to be a doctor!

I enquired about sitting the exams regardless and if I did not do well, I could resit the exams or retake the year. With exams only one month away, I was granted the chance to try. With thorough study schedules I focused alongside being in pain and with a disability flare-up, I battled through with the support of my friends and achieved 52%, not good against my past performance. Others on my course achieved 58% so this put everything into perspective on what I had achieved and what I can achieve when I set my mind to it.

So, what happened next including the sandwich year based on those results?

I was getting placement rejections due to my low grades. But, with hindsight my 3rd year was brilliant! I was working on group projects with people I knew and had previously studied with. After completion of year 3, I had two placement offers so a completely different place I was in previously, including Dyson which was completely liberating and boosted my confidence and validated my career choices.

Do you think these hurdles have given you more experience to apply to your role within engineering?

100%! I was diagnosed with a disability at the age of 16 so I’ve consistently had to advocate for myself. But this helped me to understand my limitations, what I cannot do, what I can do, and how far I can push myself. I climbed Mount Snowdon 2 weeks before my wedding yet 3 months prior I was reliant on a walking stick. The world will always throw obstacles at you, but you will build resilience. I also work in an industry where I am a minority. There is a book called ‘David and Goliath’ which teaches you to see your weaknesses as your strengths and your strengths as your weaknesses. Without the hurdles to overcome, I would not be who I am now. The next obstacle I face, I will look at the toolkit that I’ve built upon over the last decade and work out how to overcome it.

How is your Chartership coming along?

I am on track to become Chartered hopefully in the next 12/18 months. I am on the Supported Registration Scheme with the IMechE which helps me to fill in the experiences over the quarter which my mentor grades each time I submit evidence. Currently building on my experience, but it is going well so far.

In HUGE news! You have just won the IMechE Developing Engineer of the Year 2020 award, tell me all about it.

I follow the IMechE on Instagram and saw they were looking for award winners to nominate themselves. Seeing previous winners holding PhDs and changing the world I did not think it would be me. On the 5th time of seeing a post, I saw it as a sign, so I discussed it with my IMechE mentor. He said, ‘you have to be in it to win it!’. The worst thing is you do not win, and the best thing is you win. We worked together through the application on my engineering background and how I was developing myself to be a better engineer. Working in a medical device company and with the pandemic, I tried to find opportunities to help alleviate ventilator demands. I worked with the engineering team and anaesthetists to see if the products developed for neonates could be changed or modified to help the strain of a ventilator for adults with Covid19. Unfortunately, it did not work but I was able to meet with stakeholders, pitch my ideas to top-level management, all whilst facilitating working from home and setting up an online forum as well as helping the clinical lead put together our first clinical trial. Helping in all avenues possible whilst learning so much.

The application was sent off and I did not think much of it until a Thursday in November. I thought it was a phishing email! I double checked and I had indeed won! It is not about who can shout the loudest and the number of credentials they hold but about what you are doing and the effect you are making, mentoring others, and spreading the word of engineering. To have an award from an independent body showing how committed you are to your personal development is fantastic recognition and a great way of propelling my career!

You are now working as a Medical Device Engineer; how did you get to medical engineering?

I developed an interest in Medical Engineering from my thesis in my master’s on fatigue life of 3D-printed titanium knee implants. I moved locations and applied for an opportunity, but I did not have enough experience. Putting my ego to the side, I went for a Technician role which was a step back but enabled me the ability to gain the experience required.  My development within this role fuelled my passion and dedication and drove me on to become Medical Device Engineer quickly.

What does a day-to-day look like as a Medical Engineer?

 It varies, from testing to validation to evaluation. I am meticulous in note keeping and the devil is normally in the details, which helps to gain insights and understanding of why things happen. Especially when you are developing innovative technology, no one knows the answer. The collaboration, suggestions, working on findings; it is like being a detective. I have some clues; I just need to piece them together.

Do you think there is a stereotype of Women Engineers?

Yes. Often, I am expected to be the organised one, the “mother “of the team and a lot of the experiences discussed by other female engineers is common. The biggest stereotype is when you are not in the field. Everyone is working hard to change the perception especially if it does not follow your typical social media trends or family environment, you aren’t going to have the exposure.

When I tell people I am an engineer, they are shocked. I do not want them to be shocked or accepting; it should be normal like a teacher. My good fortune was my academic background from high school.

What is the importance of a mentor?

I have multiple mentors and Inspirations (role models). I always advise people to have as many people as possible that they can learn from. Even if you only talk to them once a year, it is a chance to learn and can make such a difference to perspective. Holly Everitt is our group Head of R&D, leading the charge, and is an inspiration to me. I also look to learn from my Manager and her experiences. My CEng Mentor has had a traditional engineering experience and he sees me as an engineer without a gender bias which is refreshing to just focus on my competencies rather than my identity.

Interviewer

 Cathy Swain is a Senior Consultant, specialising in engineering and technical Contract and Interim recruitment. Cathy is passionate when it comes to R&D and a keen advocate of Women In Engineering. She is a full member of the Institute of Recruitment Professionals (IRP).

To find out more about jobs in engineering, contact Cathy on 01582 878858 or email CSwain@RedlineGroup.com.