Interview with Dawn Bonfield MBE, the founder of International Women In Engineering Day

On Friday 23rd June 2017, we mark International Women in Engineering Day (#INWED17). 

The annual day was re-launched from a national level to an international awareness campaign sponsored by UNESCO in 2016, and aims to celebrate women working in Engineering, to change perceptions of the industry, and to inspire more girls to consider a career in the field. 

Only 9% of the UK's engineering workforce is female, and with the industry as a whole experiencing a significant skills shortage, it's more important than ever to encourage more young people to pursue careers in the field. 

 

I spoke to Dawn Bonfield MBE, the former Chief Executive of the Women's Engineering Society (WES) who founded National Women in Engineering Day in 2014, in celebration of the society's 95th anniversary.

Dawn did a Materials Science degree at the University of Bath, and started her graduate career in Materials Research at Citroën in Paris. Since then, she's worked at the Research Department of British Aerospace (BAE Sytems), MBDA, and the Institute of Materials, Minerals and Mining. The work she's "most proud of," though, is the recent contribution she's made to diversity - through outreach programmes and initiatives to engage students. 

In the 2016 Queen's Birthday Honours list Dawn was made MBE for her "services to the promotion of diversity in Engineering". 

 

Dawn Bonfield, after accepting the Semta & Wise Diversity in Engineering Award 2016. Credit: YouTube / SemtaSkills 

 

When Dawn joined BAE Systems, she was "the only girl in the intake of about twenty boys". 

In 1988, she tells me, "it clearly seemed so normal" that she thought nothing of it. It wasn't until Dawn stumbled upon a photo of herself amongst her fellow graduate recruits recently, that she "actually realised" she was the only girl there. 

Now, Dawn campaigns and lobbies for inclusivity in engineering, and sees INWED as "an opportunity to focus on the issues, and what needs to be done." 

"Diversity is important from the (lack of) skills perspective, the business benefit perspective," Dawn explains, when I ask why diversity is crucial to this industry in particular. The "main driver" for Dawn in her work, however, is to educate women as to the "amazing careers" available to them, that they're "missing out on if they don't know about engineering".

 

 

The "identity" of the Engineering profession is "so confused". 

Dawn's decision to pursue engineering was solidified after she took part in three summer schools focused on Material Engineering at the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology (UMIST), the University of Cambridge and the University of Bath. These "hugely valuable" opportunities, Dawn says, "are not very well publicised," and more needs to be done to show young girls the "non-traditional" careers they can pursue. 

It should go without saying that you don't have to wear a hard hat, or be male, to succeed in Engineering, but careers in the field still conjure up images of "dirty, heavy industry" in the minds of many, Dawn says. Yet, "it has changed so much over recent history that it is not the dirty industry that people equate it to."  

This is why the Women's Engineering Society (WES) sees the day as so essential. It's an opportunity to highlight female role models in the industry, and to push for more education as to the breadth of subsets within the field - many of which are highly creative and innovative. 

 

 

Employers aren't doing enough.

With more efforts to raise the profile of women in Engineering, plus a shortage of people with the skills needed to fill vacancies in the industry, I suggest to Dawn that now must be a great time to be a woman who wants to get into Engineering. Surely, companies will be vying to snap up the young female recruits with the skills they require. 

Unfortunately, though companies talk about increasing their intake of female recruits, there's not necessarily a lot of follow-through on that talk. 

"I haven't really seen any real evidence (other than verbal) that companies are actively trying to recruit women," Dawn says, "I actually still see very many women with good qualifications who can't get jobs. I think that there is a bit of a lag between people talking about it, and people actually doing it."

This isn't through employers' lack of willingness to hire female engineers though, Dawn suggests, it's more that companies are uncertain as to how to make their workplaces more inclusive. 

"This is where we need to move onto the next step of helping them implement best practises, encouraging them to benchmark, and really monitoring what is working," she explains. 

 

 

This year's International Women in Engineering Day sub-theme is #MenAsAllies.

Dawn describes the "greatest obstacle" in her career as trying to get back to working in engineering after taking maternity leave, and it's an obstacle she "didn't overcome". Though she's returned to the industry, it's been through a "convoluted route," that doesn't involve practising engineering "as such". 

She's now working to influence business' policies around maternity leave and career breaks for women, as, in her experience "there are mostly men organising the returners and they don't seem to be set up to accommodate flexibility." 

Men are "absolutely vital" to welcoming more women into Engineering careers, Dawn says. They are "co-fighters in the journey to greater diversity and inclusion." 

 

 

The future of Engineering is bright, and exciting. 

The UK is lagging behind the rest of Europe, as the country with the lowest percentage of female engineering professionals, but Dawn says to move forward, we should be focusing on the positives. 

And there are certainly many positives, that Dawn hopes can serve "as a motivator to inspire girls". 

One of those key motivators is the opportunity to influence technologies of the future. 

"Artificial intelligence is going to be a reality and we need to engage with it; climate change is creating disaster zones around the world and we need to ensure that people are safe, housed and fed.

"We face an ageing population and need to look again at our models of preventing disease, and caring for people in their homes using technology," she says. 

The sustainable production of food, and renewable energy, are also "huge" issues. 

This is why Dawn thinks its critical, from early education to business' inclusivity practises, to encourage women into Engineering - because it is an incredible industry to work in, that many are missing out on because they simply don't know it's open to them.


"There is no better industry to be in, in my opinion... Even if you are not providing the solutions, you need to be shaping the conversation. We all need a stake in our future." 

 

 

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