International Women’s Day 2024: role models for future generations

Posted on 29 Feb 2024 by The Manufacturer

Kirsty Pinnell, Composites Engineer – Design Lead at the Lightweight Manufacturing Centre (part of the National Manufacturing Institute Scotland) and former F1 design engineer, looks ahead to IWD 2024.

Looking ahead of International Women’s Day 2024, I decided to cast my mind back. When reflecting on every point in our lifetime, we can pick out particular individuals who have played a major role in shaping our experiences, from education and careers to our personal lives. In many cases, they may not even realise how much of an influence they have had, but especially for young women in traditionally male-dominated industries, the power of a positive role model can be game-changing.

I say this as the first female to join the composites design team at Williams Formula 1 in 2007, and now a working mother of two at the National Manufacturing Institute Scotland’s Lightweight Manufacturing Centre (LMC). Without guidance from several positive influences and inspirational figures along the way – from my parents and teachers to managers and colleagues – I doubt that my career would have followed the path that it has.

For many young girls, entering the world of manufacturing can seem like a daunting prospect, but I had nothing but encouragement to take me to where I am today. Of course, I appreciate that it is not the same for everyone. Statistics show that while the number of girls studying STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and maths) in schools is continually rising, in many classrooms they are still outnumbered. In physics classes in Scotland, for example, girls make up under 30% of students.

Inevitably some of the gender imbalances that exist in schools will also feed through into further education and eventually industry. However, as more and more women challenge stereotypes and share their experiences, whether in the public eye or on an individual level, we can hope to see more girls feeling inspired to do the same.

Everyone can be an influencer

International Women’s Day is about celebrating the achievements of women, but it is also about reminding people that we need to continue to encourage greater balance across many different sectors to accelerate progress, particularly in manufacturing. I want to encourage everyone reading this – not only women – to consider the part you can play as a role model and how you could pay it forward for people at any stage of their education or career.

By no means am I a careers advisor, but I have been approached a few times to share my professional experiences and offer some guidance to young people unsure of their next steps. I have talked to different groups at science festivals, schools and universities, and had plenty of chats with friends’ children to offer my advice on which subjects they should be choosing for potential career prospects and getting into university courses.

Giving back in this way and seeing what happens next with anyone I speak to always fills me with a great sense of pride. I like to think I have made a positive impact, but it is a testament to the people who did the same for me when I was growing up.

Thinking back to my own teenage years, it was a close family friend that helped me to settle on product design engineering, sharing her coursework and portfolio to give me a flavour of what to expect. She continues to be an inspirational figure to this day, a fellow Kilmarnock local who has achieved great things in her field alongside raising a family.

Early influences

Barbara McIntyre is the Engineering and Operations Director at Caley Ocean Systems and, during her 20-year career, has worked at major firms including BAE Systems, Atkins and Brodie Engineering. She has been responsible for delivering several major multi-million-pound projects and managing global teams.

A career in motorsports

It wasn’t until my postgraduate studies in motorsport engineering and management at Cranfield University that my eyes were opened to just how few women there might be in this line of work. Of a group of 20 students, only three of us were women. However, as part of the course, a guest speaker, Chris Aylett from the Motorsport Industry Association, came along to talk to us about potential career paths and actually helped us to see it as an advantage. He said that, provided we worked hard, as the minority we were more likely to leave a lasting impact on industry contacts we would come across.

I made it my mission to become memorable, and it served me well in terms of getting my foot in the door at Williams F1. These days it is less about who you know, with more motorsports and F1 teams hiring for entry-level and graduate positions, but there is still a lot to be said for first impressions and hard work.

Female empowerment has become part of the everyday discourse and, in most cases, it means the door is now already half open for women and girls looking to get into careers in a sector previously dominated by men. In motorsports especially, the change I saw throughout my 15 years working at Williams F1 was significant with more and more talented female students coming into the sector each year. When I left the role to move back to my hometown in Scotland, the assembly I looked after was taken on by two female engineers and there were plenty more in other parts of the workshop – a lot had changed since my first day on the job.

Women in motorsports

Susie Wolff is a Scottish former professional racing driver and, after retiring from driving in 2016, Susie launched Dare To Be Different – an initiative aimed at inspiring the next generation of women in motorsport. She is currently the managing director of the F1 Academy, a female-only racing championship.

Claire Williams is among the most prominent and successful women in recent Formula 1 history. After taking over from her late father, she led the Williams Formula 1 racing team until 2020 and during her time at the helm was a big advocate for diversity and inclusion.

Kirsty Pinnell
Kirsty Pinnell, Composites Engineer – Design Lead, Lightweight Manufacturing Centre

A new chapter in R&D

In 2023, I accepted a new role at the Lightweight Manufacturing Centre (LMC) – a specialist centre within the National Manufacturing Institute Scotland (NMIS) Group – and joined a team of world-class engineers and researchers exploring the next generation of lighter, stronger and more efficient materials for a net zero world.

The working environment is quite different to the Formula 1 workshop, as you can imagine, and there is a greater female presence throughout the organisation. In the LMC engineering team specifically, five out of nine of us are female. A large part of the work we do is in helping SMEs and large corporations consider composite materials for use in a range of sectors, from infrastructure projects to oil and gas and aerospace, and it is great to have a majority female team leading work that could potentially transform these industries.

Collaboration and partnerships are central to how the LMC operates and, on a daily basis, I have the pleasure of working alongside highly successful female engineers both at member companies and internally. Even at this stage in my career, I feel inspired by others every day.

Inspirational colleagues

Catherine Yokan is a research and development engineer at the Lightweight Manufacturing Centre and, alongside her day job, is completing a PhD in Mechanical Engineering with the University of South Carolina. Catherine has previous work experience with NASA and is LMC’s resident space sector expert.

Dr Jill Zhe Liu is sustainability lead at the LMC and was named in the Women’s Engineering Society’s top 100 women in engineering in 2022. Her expertise spans advanced rapid composites manufacturing, composites recycling and reuse, process automation and optimisation, and computational fluid dynamics.

International Women’s Day – paying it forward for the next generation

The youth of today are going to be the leaders of tomorrow, so those of us already working in the sector must do our bit to support great talent to thrive – particularly among underrepresented groups. That’s why International Women’s Day is so key. Stereotypes and unconscious bias still exist and, alongside working to stamp that out, women in manufacturing need to remain visible.

Female engineers are no longer a rare breed, so the more that young women see and hear us talking about our profession, the more we can do to empower and encourage them to go for it. Gone are the days of girls being told they ‘can’t’ and I’m proud to play my own small part in encouraging that change.

Future engineers

Kirstyn Calder is a fourth-year aero-mechanical engineering student at the University of Strathclyde and has spent two consecutive summers working on composite manufacturing and R&D with Spirit AeroSystems at Glasgow Prestwick Spaceport. She is president of the Strathclyde Aerospace Innovation Society and was recently nominated for a Strathclyde Women+ in Leadership Network award for engineering.

Lisa Scott is also studying aero-mechanical engineering at the University of Strathclyde and is a former summer intern at the National Manufacturing Institute Scotland. She is heavily involved in the Strathclyde Aerospace Innovation Society and led the rocketry team’s successful entry into the 2023 Spaceport America Cup.

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