Reflections of a School Girl who chose Engineering!

by Aine Finlayson.

Engineering is a rewarding career and central to its success is the need for innovation, new products, new processes and committed teams. It has, and will always, benefit from different thinkers, different styles and open-mindedness.

With over 30 years in engineering, I rarely take the time to reflect on how I got here and how the previous experiences shape how I work, lead and live my life. It is hard to believe that some of that gained experience would be useful to other colleagues, at various points in their careers but I think they are worth sharing if I make them personal.

I am often cited as having high resilience and adaptivity; and from scripting the below, I can see where those foundations were formed and shaped by the various experiences. I have chosen 7 points on that journey that I think were pivotal and I would welcome feedback on their similarity or challenge.

School Years

I was an average student attending an all-girls school who loved maths and science. Being part of a Young Scientist Competition in Ireland highlighted the importance of “softer skills” to present ideas and influence people so loving maths was never going to be enough, you needed a bit of everything to be good at what you loved.

Real work experience inspired me to commit to choosing engineering, accessed through a government-sponsored work experience programme for girls coupled with the advice from a pilot ( I managed to get to sit in the cockpit on a journey) to change from aeronautical to mechanical engineering to maximise my choices post-degree! – that was great advice as I ended up with more opportunities to get company-sponsored through my degree and gaining valuable work experience.

University Years

University was my 1st experience of the low ratios of women to men in engineering. I was one of six women in a class of approx. 80 engineers.

I was fortunate to be sponsored and gain work experience with a company during my 5-year course and both experiences gave me the courage to be “comfortable with the uncomfortable” as everything was a new experience. Simple things, like noticing the awkwardness of the people that I was assigned to during my placements as I was probably their first woman engineer to being the last one picked for university team projects as the boys were more comfortable to pick their pals in those early years.

Overall, I learnt to be accommodating to show my worth, not to shy away from situations although tempted many times, to be curious and network with a wider range of people to help provide alternative insights into processes and approaches in my work. In the end, the environment felt much more supportive and equal. Those relationships fostered in that time remain important to me today.

Being an engineer – The early years.

I have always had a strong work ethic, positive attitude to team working and openness to try new things. All valuable assets in those early years. Any project asking for support, I said yes, knowing that I wasn’t ready for all of the elements, with the leadership supporting my growth.  I did have one occasion where I challenged poor behaviour of a fellow engineer only to be subjected to one of the most embarrassing and demoralizing experiences at the hands of both of our managers. HR really failed me in the moment and provided a fantastic learning experience for me to avoid for others in the future.

On my first secondment deployment to Italy, I recognised the importance of developing teamwork and leadership skills alongside my technical capability – that experience shaped how I led the team, encouraging me to be confident in myself. That’s when I first noticed that I could bring some different thinking to situations.

Being a manager

The hardest learning wasn’t with the team that reported to me, although I went through all the usual managerial learning experience with performance and personal interactions; the learning was how to handle myself in my peer managerial group. I found some of those situations or people really intimidating and confronting, almost ignoring my presence. I didn’t respond well to that threat and “reacted” playing into the labels of women’s irrational behaviour responses. I called it my Red Button. It took me a while to be aware of the triggers and responding behaviours. I was fortunate to have good coaching from my leader and ultimately position myself as a core member of the team. I often brought alternative thinking to situations and became more confident to challenge the status quo to deliver the right outcomes.

Being a mother

This was probably the most difficult adjustment. I relied on my work ethic and commitment, often working long hours to ensure that I was viewed as valued and valuable. With the onset of my motherhood, I had a real confidence crisis as my capability to complete all of my tasks was being compromised by capacity both at work full-time and at home.  The knotted feelings in my tummy when one had to leave to get to the nursery before six. My husband, who was super supportive, didn’t have to think about these things in his work and I often wondered if my feeling were real or just a perception on my part. But to add to the dilemma, my manager sent me for coaching for confidence which actually further undermined my position. I believe that situation has really shaped my attitude on people returning to work from different life experiences; life; death or illness that I do understand that people can have highs and lows with confidence.

Being a Leader

I know I am a much different leader today than I was 20 years ago. I have learned that good leaders enable their teams to shine and always thinks of the future and its impacts. I initially thought that I had to lead like others rather than just be true to how I wanted to lead. I experimented over the years utilising various opportunities for self-awareness and leadership training; all of which have provided nuggets in shaping who I am today. I have fostered a value system on being fair, authentic and developing people whilst delivering results and forward-thinking, within my team. We all bring different ingredients and knowing when and how to lean on different people or their skills at different times, creates a sense of trust.  Also, I have a solid foundation in engineering coupled with a confidence in finance, both valuable assets as you lead a business driving changes to meet the needs of the energy transition.

Giving Back

I have always struggled to step forward and be an active advocate of encouraging more women into engineering. I think it is because I thought I didn’t want to be treated differently and therefore wanted to demonstrate that I wasn’t different, that the neutral mindset experienced in university was more comfortable to utilise on a day to day basis. As I am now in my fifties, I am increasingly alarmed at the lack of change with diversity in my technical teams. It is such a rewarding career so why isn’t attracting more bright, curious and scientific-orientated women. The recent pandemic showed how quickly the workplace can change if we need to and therefore, some of the age-old constraints of attracting and retaining women could be challenged with more job share or early work experience. Therefore, as the first woman President of Scottish Engineering, I feel this is the time to give back to the industry that has given me so much and I look forward to more opportunities.

I hope this has been insightful, motivational and encouraging for anyone reading this as the various points in their career. Working in engineering in its current mix, has been an enjoyable and rewarding career surrounded by committed, intellectual and practical people who make a difference. I just really believe it would be even better with more women and other underrepresented groups in the sector.

In Summary

Be comfortable with the uncomfortable.

Seek out and always be open to new challenges and learning.

Trust your instincts to create your own style.

Always help others on their development journey.

And Equate Scotland can help you with these by supporting women throughout their careers through the provision of training and CPD, tailored career clinic sessions, and the CareerHub job board.