Orla Murphy, Young Woman Engineer of the Year 2015

Young Woman Engineer of the Year: where are they now?

We take a look at previous winners of the prestigious Young Woman Engineer of the Year award and how their lives have changed since being a YWE ambassador.

This year will see the 40th IET Young Woman Engineer (YWE) of the Year Award. Launched in 1978 as the Girl Technician of the Year Award, it was rebranded as YWE in 1988, continuing the tradition of honouring the UK’s top female engineering talent. As well as recognising the highest-achieving female engineers, the award also aims to promote women in engineering to the wider public, with winners taking on a 12-month ambassadorial role after receiving their award and cash prize, which currently stands at £2,500.

Although the percentage of female engineers has risen since YWE’s inception, they still only make up nine per cent of the total. With many believing much more needs to be done to boost that number, we spoke to some past YWE winners about their work promoting engineering careers to girls and women, their careers since the award and their views on whether schemes such as this can make a difference.

Orla Murphy (2015)

Orla Murphy recently moved from the role of audio engineer at Jaguar Land Rover to forward model quality engineer within the Electrical Electronic and Software Engineering department. Having attained chartered engineer (CEng) status, she is now working towards Black Belt certification in this new role, which entails problem-solving across the business.

Murphy feels she achieved a huge amount during her time as YWE ambassador, reaching people of all ages and helping to change perceptions around women in engineering. “I did so many diverse things in my year as an engineering ambassador – to the extent that I needed a spreadsheet to keep track of all the events and deadlines. I spoke at conferences, judged competitions, got involved in recruiting apprentices internally, but the highlight was visiting my old primary school. It was fantastic to show students the journey I had made from Ballinora National School to Jaguar Land Rover and see them excited to learn more about types of engineer in the world.”

She believes YWE’s role models are a great way to encourage more women into engineering, but there’s still work needed to get pay equality and a level playing field.

Abbie Hutty (2013)

Since her YWE win Abbie Hutty has continued her career in the space sector, working for Airbus as the lead spacecraft structures engineer for the ExoMars rover, set to launch in 2020.

Hutty used the opportunity to develop some of her soft skills, such as public speaking, but for her the best thing was helping more people to see what engineering truly entails.

“Reaching people and communities that perhaps hadn’t understood what engineering was before was far more rewarding than doing the high-profile events where I didn’t get to see the personal impact,” she notes. “Being YWE definitely brought home the importance of telling our stories, so that others understand the profession and make an informed decision about whether they want to join it.”

These insights have given her a real feeling of duty, so much so that she continues to represent female engineers at a variety of events. She does feel this work is garnering results, but notes that we can’t expect change to happen overnight.

“It will take time for the engineering gender balance to change dramatically,” she says. “Even if we get engineering courses and apprenticeships made up of 50 per cent women right now, it will still be three to five years before they become fully fledged engineers and then they have to filter through the system and move up the ranks before they start to balance out the percentage of professional engineers.”

Charlotte Joyce (2011)

Charlotte’s Joyce’s career has changed quite dramatically since her year as YWE. Gone is the Army captain’s uniform; she now works as the curriculum leader of aviation at Newcastle College Aviation Academy.

On leaving the ‘regular’ Army in 2012 (she continues to be involved as an officer in the Army Reserves), Joyce spent time travelling in America, Canada, New Zealand and Hong Kong before setting up a smallholding with her partner in Cumbria.

Having already decided to leave the Army at the time of winning YWE, she was able to put a lot of time into her ambassadorial work, which saw her very much in the public eye: appearing in or on media outlets including IET.tv, MOD News, the Guardian, Daily Telegraph and Marie Claire. She was even featured in a book entitled ‘Apache over Libya’, written about the time she was with the Attack Helicopter Force on HMS Ocean and how this role led to her winning the YWE title.

Joyce also got heavily involved in events and projects such as Big Bang, the Faraday Challenge, Year in Industry and Lancaster Science Festival. Through this work she became more passionate about education and a desire to move into teaching was born.

“There were youngsters out there who didn’t know about all the opportunities. This drove me towards education and getting students engaged in all the cool things going on outside the classroom, the different competitions and events that I learnt about through YWE,” she explains.

Not one to rest on her laurels, alongside completing a PGCE and immersing herself in her new career, Joyce has continued to promote engineering and volunteers for several organisations including the Arkwright Scholarships Trust, Smallpeice Trust and the IET.

“I was asked to become an IET Benevolent Fund trustee. YWE gave me the opportunity to experience the governance and finance side of an organisation, something I probably would never have experienced otherwise. It’s been a real eye-opener for me and given me new skills.”

Sally Walters (2009)

A local champion of engineering, Sally Walters lives and works in Exeter. Eight years after holding the YWE title, her career has come full circle as she now works back at the same organisation, Pell Frischmann. In between, she’s worked as a principal engineer and project manager for Grontmji (now Sweco), as well as taking 18 months out to have her son.

“I’ve been away and had a few life changes, which I’m thoroughly enjoying,” she says. “After having my son I decided I didn’t want the long commute to Bristol and an opportunity back at Pell’s came up. I’m a principal civil engineer, project manager and lead designer on water and wastewater upgrade projects for clients like South Water and Wessex Water.”

With a strong engineering community in the region, Walters was already involved in STEM promotion before YWE and has continued ever since. During her year as ambassador she travelled far and wide: taking to the stage as a keynote speaker, even attending overseas conferences, but now her focus is closer to home.

“I’m involved with universities and schools in the South-West such as Exeter and Plymouth universities. It’s nice being a local champion,” she says. “I continue to promote engineering in general, not just for women, and stay in touch with organisations like the IET and ICE.”

However, the profession still needs a new image. “I certainly think there are a lot more campaigns, promotion on social media of diversity in engineering; it’s getting more attention. I think it has come on a bit since my time, but it’s still considered a ‘male career’, so there’s more work to be done.” 

Sam Hubbard (2000)

Sam Hubbard has had a rich and fulfilling career since her YWE win 17 years ago, rising up the ranks within newsprint manufacturer UPM Shotton Paper before moving to Urenco in 2014 to become lead control, electrical and instrument plant engineer. Now in the role of system engineer, she is responsible for six systems covering a wide range of disciplines and complexity at the uranium enrichment company.

Hubbard believes that YWE raised her career profile and opened up many career opportunities. Her year as YWE ambassador was a whirlwind of events, interviews, exhibitions and competitions. “I don’t think I did a full week in work for the entire year I held the title,” she laughs. “UPM Shotton Paper was amazing supporting me, allowing me the time to attend a whole host of engineering-related events. I was on local TV and radio, in national magazines and newspapers, presented at schools and career fairs, judged competitions and many other activities from Inverness to London. It was an exciting year!”

For all her achievements as ambassador, one moment that particularly stands out for Hubbard was meeting her mathematics hero, Johnny Ball. “I got to help him with a maths experiment,” she enthuses. “I only held some ping pong balls on a piece of string but I was so excited!”

Diversity in engineering has improved since Hubbard entered the workplace 25 years ago, but she sees more to be done. “Despite the great work being undertaken by various incentives it is a massive tide to turn,” she notes. “We need more step changes and I believe the IET #9Percent​IsNotEnough campaign will kick-start another.”

Michelle Richmond (1990)

Now IET director of membership and professional development, Michelle Richmond began her career as an engineering apprentice at Siemens. Eager to continue her education, she studied part-time to gain a degree, working up to become a graduate microwave engineer with the company.

“It was very exciting to then win the accolade of YWE, a real affirmation of how much the effort of studying and learning on the job led to being recognised as someone who could fly the flag, perhaps be an ambassador for the more vocational route into engineering,” she says.

Richmond was introduced to the IIE (now IET) through YWE, as during her year as ambassador, she was asked to join its Academic Accreditation Committee.

“It was my first experience of volunteering and I was mixing with heads of engineering departments. It was hugely career-enhancing, as the volunteering role led onto international accreditation visits and eventually chairing the council of the IIE.

“Being YWE took me out of my comfort zone and gave me some fantastic life experiences. It gave me a parallel career path alongside Siemens, which eventually led to me working for the institution.

“I was headhunted as they were looking for someone who understood the area I now look after. I had a full appreciation of the professional registration process, having gone on to achieve IEng and then CEng, and was also able to use the project management skills I had gained from industry. It was the perfect merger of understanding and skills.”

Richmond thinks YWE is as relevant today as it was in 1990, because there are still too few female engineers. “Figures may have shifted, but nine per cent is not enough. We should be aiming for a much higher take-up.”

Past winners

Where are they now?

Are you one of the past winners and want to fill in the gaps? Where are you now? Get in touch to tell us what you’re up to. communications@theiet.org

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