Jennifer Olsen

Back story: Jennifer Olsen, ‘These days I feel I should speak out’

Image credit: Sarah Plater Photography

TV presenter Dr Shini Somara talks to Jennifer Olsen, a PhD student at Newcastle University who is developing prosthetic limb technology. Her focus is developing new sockets that will make prosthetic limbs more reliable and improve the way electronics are integrated into devices.

Shini Somara: How did your career evolve?

Jennifer Olsen: I had wanted to do biomedical engineering from around the age of 16. Before then, I had no idea what an engineer was. I assumed they just fixed trains and cars, and doing that didn’t really interest me. I was interested in medicine and helping people, but I didn’t want to be a doctor. I believe that many women, myself included, choose engineering later on, because they have many misconceptions about the profession.

I only learned about what engineering is through the National Engineering Competition for girls in 2016, which I eventually won. This led me into prosthetic research via a university degree in mechanical engineering.

As a healthcare profession, biomedical engineering tends to attract a higher number of women, but it is also looked down upon. Many people do not consider biomedical engineering to be ‘real’ engineering, perhaps because we don’t work with massive heavy structures.  But, just like most engineers, I am always building, testing and using the same software programs as many other types of engineers. People need the devices we design, and in certain parts of society they could not function without them.

SS: How do you deal with the lack of women in your profession?

JO: On a few occasions, I have been very uncomfortable with inappropriate comments made towards myself and other women when I was a student. Early on, there were times when I did not speak out about this, for fear of repercussions affecting my future career. It felt so wrong to not say anything.

Thankfully, such inappropriateness is reducing with time, partly because there is more awareness about it, but also because there is an increase in the number of women choosing engineering. Women are slowly becoming less of a minority. I do think things are moving in the right direction.

I am also learning to challenge people more these days, just because I’m a bit older and I’m a little bit more confident in myself. These days I feel I should speak out because there is bound to be somebody who feels that they can’t. A few years ago, that ‘somebody’ used to be me. Negative comments towards my gender don’t affect me the way they used to.

What gives me confidence is that I really love my job and I love the team that I work with.  

SS: Despite being in a minority, what kept you going in engineering?

JO: My family is really supportive. They have always believed that I can do anything I set my mind to, and they have always offered to help me along the way. I’ve also had a role model who has been my rock throughout university. Clare is like my kindred spirit. We both come from low-achieving areas, yet we both are passionate about encouraging more girls into STEM. Clare has been there, whenever I have not known how to deal with difficult situations in my career.

Having a woman that I can speak to, who was from the same background as me, who understands where I was coming from, has been invaluable. She’s brilliant.

SS: What personal lessons have you learned from your engineering career?

JO: Don’t be afraid to get things wrong. I have always been terrified of making mistakes because I’m such a perfectionist. What I have learned is that you can learn so much from failure.

SS: What are your views on work-life balance in engineering?

JO: I have been very frustrated in interviews where employers are worried about hiring women, due to potential maternity-leave risks. Personally I feel women are still held accountable for a much larger share of domestic issues, in terms of emotional workload and mental workload. Even when chores are split 50/50, women still tend to be asked to organise all of that. I really don’t know how we can fix this imbalance other than by educating both boys and girls from an early age that running a household is not just a woman’s responsibility. I think this simple message could really make a difference. 

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