Engineering is acknowledged as a key sector in driving the UK’s economic success and ensuring it remains at the forefront of technological advances. But for many years the industry has faced a significant skills shortage, with a marked disparity between the number of male and female recruits.
INWED – International Women in Engineering Day on June 23 – wants to address this disparity by encouraging more girls and women to consider engineering as a career. The event was launched four years ago by the UK-based Women’s Engineering Society (WES) and has now gone global with the aims of inspiring, engaging and celebrating women in engineering.
According to WES, just 11% of the UK engineering workforce is female, the lowest percentage in Europe. Given that women represent almost 47% of the UK labour force it would be fair to think it should be higher. Research suggests interventions should start at a young age, promoting STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and maths) in primary education and encouraging more students – girls included – to continue with them through to university and beyond.
However, the proportion of young women studying engineering and physics has remained virtually static since 2012 and Engineering UK data shows that while 50% of GCSE physics students are female, the proportion drops to 22% at ‘A’ Level and further to 16% for engineering and technology first degree entrants.
While young people may be unaware of the breadth of prospects offered by a career in engineering, the British Board of Agrément is very clear on the opportunities it offers and is proud to have a growing cohort of skilled female engineers and allied trades helping drive its business forward. Indeed, of its 185-strong workforce, 58 of them are women, of which 19 are engineers and scientists.
One of them is Ramona Donnelly, who has risen through the ranks to become Operations Manager – Engineering at the BBA’s headquarters in Watford, Hertfordshire. The BBA is a recognised industry leader in the assessment and certification of building products, placing huge responsibility on Ms Donnelly and her team, as she explained: “Engineering excites me for many reasons because I enjoy finding out how things are made, analysing buildings from the construction point of view and I’m always curious about how new products are developed. But it is not easy. Great responsibility comes with being an engineer regardless of the field of expertise. The products that you work with – whether you design, develop, construct or assess – will eventually become products on which people’s lives depend on. Having said that, it’s extremely exciting, challenging and provides extreme job satisfaction.”
Through school Ms Donnelly enjoyed scientific topics, studying biology and chemistry as main subjects at college in her home country of Romania. Her degree of choice at the University of Transilvania was Product Design, a new course taught in English. However, Ramona’s parents wanted her to study banking so for the first semester she took both degree courses to see which she preferred. Product Design won out and the rest, as they say, is history. As part of her degree she had the chance to study elsewhere in Europe through the ERASMUS exchange project, which brought her to the UK and her eventual graduation as a scholarship student from Buckinghamshire Chilterns University College. In 2007 she joined TRADA Technology, which specialises in the assessment of timber products, as a technical product assessor and went on to take a Masters in Timber Engineering at Napier University, Edinburgh.
“My role focused on desktop assessments and hand-on testing of products,” said Ms Donnelly. “This alone taught me the reality of how engineering products perform compared to the theory. I found great satisfaction in not only learning and understanding but also in demonstrating how construction products work in ‘real life’.”
From TRADA she joined the BBA as a project manager in the Materials Department, progressing through various roles in different departments, including Civil and Highways, before taking on her current post following maternity leave. “Being consistently rewarded and promoted at the BBA motivated me to return to work after 3.5 months off to start this new, challenging and exciting role,” she said. “I oversee three teams of approximately 20 project managers specialising in three major areas (structural roof components, cementitious & ancillaries; structural building systems & claddings; civils & highways) and we are looking to expand and provide further capacity and services. My roles within the BBA have taken me through such a wide variety of construction products. The BBA is very open in supporting employees with their personal development, from ensuring professional membership with specific institutions to attendance at product and/or area specific training courses, CPDs and technical knowledge information centres.”
As much as she loves her chosen career, Ms Donnelly doesn’t recall a specific moment when she decided to become an engineer: “It was more like engineering found me,” she said. “I’ve always been a practical person and learn best when doing so in a logical manner. My love for practical solutions, for resolving problems, started from an early age. Spending time with my father in his garage and watching him repair the car always interested and intrigued. Similarly having my grandfather help me with some of my coursework at university and preparing design mock-ups on the lathe was fascinating. At university I learnt to weld and that gave me a sense of empowerment. I thought ‘this is great, I want to do more of it’!
“My love for the technical side of the role increased during university when the majority of the subjects I studied were based on engineering subjects (strength of materials, math, chemistry, mechanics, electromagnetics etc). Throughout my life the choices I made from school, college and then universities have all lead me slowly into engineering roles,” she added.
But it has not always been easy, with professional and personal hurdles: “From learning new product areas to using new testing equipment and developing test methods and procedures where standardised ones did not function, to delivering on extremely tight deadlines, having client meetings where I was ignored because I’m a woman and training older male colleagues who felt uncomfortable because I was younger, there have been challenges but they have helped me develop myself and mould my business experience,” said Ms Donnelly. “In the early part of my career I worked alongside mostly men. After getting used to me and seeing how capable I am at the same work, they treated me equally. And I enjoyed proving that women can be very strong individuals not just mentally but physically as well. I think women engineers bring a lot of determination and focus, they work with the aim to deliver. Women can be very detail orientated and so will always find a solution with a different perspective from men.”
Ms Donnelly is focused on delivering great service to her BBA clients and continues to strive to be a successful woman in a field that used to be dominated by men. “I have a strong passion to go as far as I can in my career and I would love to be a role model for other women both in and out of the BBA. It makes me proud each time I see a product bearing the BBA’s logo. I recently saw an ongoing refurbishment at the train station in Oxford using BBA Certified products. It makes me proud to know that my job, alongside my colleagues, help manufacturers demonstrate the quality of their products and helps them achieve growth in the market. I love the challenges, they keep me awake at night on many occasions, but the job would be boring if it wasn’t for the challenges. I love being able to demonstrate my capability and how my input in to various projects can help establish/improve and deliver the work we do.
“The BBA has come a long way since I joined. More women are coming on board, and the BBA has a female CEO (Claire Curtis-Thomas). That in itself is inspiring and exciting and was one of the reasons that made me join this organisation – because it shows that any women can achieve the career they aspire to.”