Making STEM careers accessible for everyone and busting the myths surrounding engineering and manufacturing jobs are long-standing issues for industry. We spoke to one female engineer tackling these challenges head on.
Only 12% of engineers are women in the UK, according to 2018 figures from Women in Engineering Society (WES), this up just 1% from the previous year. The industry has a shameful gender gap that refuses to close.
One woman determined to change that is Katy Toms, a senior engineer for global engineering firm WSP. Toms was named as one of WES’ Top 50 Women in Engineering in 2017 and is a STEM ambassador.
“Engineering is for everyone,” she tells me. “It is the perfect mix of technical skills and creativity, which means that if your passionate about being able to make a difference, there is probably a role for you in engineering.”
Toms recently led a project to build a STEM classroom at a school in Malawi, Southeast Africa. “It’s difficult not to get involved,” she says. “The things we take for granted have a massive impact, the IT labs that we put together were like magic to the children.”
In May, a team of 25 female engineers journeyed to Malawi to support the construction of the classroom and worked with students, parents and teachers to share skills and inspire the next generation of young people into the world of STEM careers.
Busting myths: boring, bad for the environment & not for women
“As a woman in engineering, it is not just about getting more women into industry, it is about having a more diverse workforce that reflects society.
“The general feeling is that engineering is boring, and you have got to be really clever, but that’s complete rubbish and a myth. While engineering might not look cool and trendy on the outside, it’s at the forefront of so many transformative things essential to the future. My mission is to get people excited about engineering,” she says.
The project was inspired by a previous trip to Malawi last year, when Toms went with a company who take on international projects with a purpose. “The trips they run have social-economic benefits and align with the UN’s sustainable development goals. As an engineer that really peaked my interest because what we do often supports that, people don’t realise this either.
“I spent time with women sharing skills, so they can grow their businesses with trade rather than aid,” says Toms.
“From that trip, our idea just grew and developed to have one classroom in the building for science and the other for IT. Now the children can access the internet and educational material that we take for granted in the UK.
“One of the other exciting things we did was use sustainable materials, interlocking eco bricks made on site by the local team. Traditionally they use burnt bricks, which the Malawi government are trying to stop because they aren’t good for the environment.
“We wanted to have a female team from all over the world, so the students and our businesses could see that positive visible female role model and we could give a clear message to industry that women can do something like this,” she says.
All about people
Toms first became interested in engineering after watching a programme about the Falkirk Wheel in Scotland. “The structure was fascinating, but what caught my attention was the butterfly effect a structure could cause, the people element.”
She began her career in London designing power lines and is currently working as the project manager for the A43 Moulton Bypass in Northampton, something she says has been an exciting new challenge.
“I have always believed that engineering is about people and the impact we can have on their lives,” she tells me. “I love my job and that I can work on projects that improve people’s lives, even if it’s just helping them get home 15 minutes quicker every day to spend time with their families.
Toms works with the Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE) closely and is the incoming chair for the South West regional committee. She also supports other engineers’ development to becoming chartered engineers with the ICE.
“This project has really lighted a fire for a new passion for corporate social responsibility (CSR). Within WSP we have a CSR committee and I am really interested in getting more involved with that, as such a global company, going forward, we could have such an amazing impact.”