[Interview - Part 3] - Female Engineers, Transforming the future - Rachel Howard

Posted 31/1/2020 by Benet Hanley

Again this year, in our dedication to supporting women in STEM and help women transition from the world of graduate employment to having successful careers in the electronics field, we partnered with the UK Electronics Skills Foundation (UKESF). Through our partnership, we were able to send seven female students to attend the WES Student Conference 2019, up from three last year. We recently caught up with some of the students to find out their thoughts on various issues ranging from their thought about the event and gender diversity in the electronics industry.


Third in this mini-series, we are chatting with Rachel Howard, a computer science and electronics student at the University of Bristol.


So could you tell me a little bit about yourself and what you study?

I’m Rachel Howard. I study computer science and electronics at the University of Bristol. I'm in my fourth and final year for my Masters in Engineering.


How's that going?

Good. A lot of course work, a lot of stress, but I feel like it’s going well.


Thinking about how you got into the course and into studying electronic engineering, who or what inspired you to take this route?

Well, I've always been interested in electronics as a kid. Once I finished playing with the toy, I would always ask my mum if I could take it apart and see what was inside. So, when it came to choosing my a-levels I was good at maths, so I decided to do maths. My Granddad quit farming to be a computer scientist, and we have a lot in common, so I thought I'll give computer science a go. Then I wanted to do something a bit more practical and after seeing the electronics coursework at the college open day I could see that students actually got to make something, and that was very appealing to me. Thus, those were the a-levels I took.

I couldn't decide between computer science and electronics when it was time to think about post-college, which is why I'm at Bristol doing a joint honours in computer science and electronics.


So do you know where you would like to go in your career following your degree?

Yes, I've already got a job offer at Altran, which is where I got a summer internship through the UKESF scholarship scheme. So I'm going to start work there, and then I hope to boost my career and progress to management or become an expert engineer.


It sounds like the UKESF has really worked out for you then since the placement that you did through them has turned into a job offer, that's really good. 

Yeah, definitely, it put me in a good position, post-graduation.


That's good to hear. You went to the WES Student Conference this year, and the theme was “transform the future.” Maybe you could tell us a bit more about your experience at the conference.

I very much enjoyed it. We had some very interesting speakers talking about transforming the future, about the big problems that we, as a society face, and what's being done in the realm of technology to tackle those problems. It was also really nice to be surrounded by fellow students who are going through the same problems and the same experiences at University as you are.


Okay. So did you have a favorite guest speaker?

They were all very good; I don't know if I could pick a favorite. However, one of the ones I was most interested in was the one on healthcare by Dr. Helen Meese. I've always had an interest in the direction healthcare is going and how it will cope with the aging population. Technology really is going to be the only solution to keep things like the NHS running, because the current system is quite inefficient. So to see what is being done to solve those problems has always been of interest to me.


Is that something that you'll be able to pursue professionally?

Maybe in the future, that's not my immediate next step in life but it's certainly something I always keep an eye on.


I'm interested to hear what you think events like WES Conference do for young female engineers.

Obviously, most of the attendees have already chosen STEM as part of their further education. There were students from first-year to Ph.D. present so they're already on the right path of going into STEM. Talking to some of them, there were quite a few who, like me, suffer some confidence issues when it comes to their own abilities and were already thinking about leaving STEM because they didn't think they had a place there. Just talking to each other, sharing our struggles and experiences, makes them realise there's still a place for them as engineers, and they shouldn't give up.


So you feel that the WES Conference helps with the confidence of young engineers? 

Yeah, definitely. I wasn't expecting to be one of the older students; I thought there'd be quite a few third and fourth years. Actually there were a lot of first-years who really were trying to get all the advice they could from me, and it was really good to be able to share with them. They were really worried because they were having to take extra time out of lectures, or weren't getting concepts as quickly as perhaps they had been before Uni. Many thought that meant Uni and STEM wasn't for them, rather than just knowing that's what university is like, you may see people getting it immediately around you, but that doesn't mean you're not smart enough to be there.


You've had a really interesting journey so far. You've had the experience of almost four years in university now. You've also had the experience of working in different environments. What excites you about the UK tech industry?

It's got to be the amount of innovation there is. You don't really hear about it too much unless you start looking into STEM. So much of the technology that's been used, particularly in phones and processors and stuff like that all start in companies in the UK, and that's really exciting to me.


Okay. So one of the things you were talking about were the challenges that some of the other female students felt they faced. What advice would you give industry to help increase the number of women and girls coming into electronics?

I always feel that industry is not aiming low enough age-wise when it comes to getting women interested. They tend to try and promote electronics to students who have already chosen to study  maths a-level and from my experience, students chose to do maths because they are good at maths, but also because they've already got a plan paved out for themselves to do their dream career which requires maths. So, the industry needs to promote electronics to school age or even junior school age before they have made that decision.

I remember each Christmas my brother would get really cool toys which required building a simple circuit to power a little car or something, whereas I would get a Christmas card making set. I feel like that if the toy industry advertised their electronic products to girls more, that would massively improve the number of girls interested in STEM.


Is it really the responsibility of the electronics industry to break the myths of gender roles, or is that more the issue for everyone to face up to, to try and rebalance that?

Obviously, it requires everyone to get involved, but I think the engineering industry can certainly be a leader in that, by saying that these stereotypes don't fit anymore. These are what engineers are, and these are things they do.


Did you have any concerns about what it was going to be like embarking on an electronics course or a computing course at university? How were you received and treated?

Not so much. I was one of a few women at my college to take A-levels in computer science and electronics; I was concerned then. On my first day in my new computer science A-level class, I was late because I had a further maths exam. I came in, and it was a room full of boys. I was nervous; I said, “I think I should be in this class,” and the teacher looked at me a little surprised but was welcoming. I remember it so well because I was so worried that I wouldn’t be welcomed or wouldn’t be believed.

Being in a small class, the teachers always learned your name first, which means you have to answer the questions, rather than them shouting “Jack”, and then the class say “which Jack?” I think college prepared me to know that I would be in a minority but has definitely not been an issue at any point.


So you've been on the UKESF scholarship program. I suspect I probably know the answer to this given our earlier part of the conversation, but what’s the UKESF scholarship program meant for you?

It's meant that I’ve had real-world experience in a place of work. It’s meant that I got a job offer, and I don't have to worry about that during my final year.


That’s a pretty positive experience all round then? 

Definitely, I'm super thrilled to get a job offer there. I had another placement somewhere else as part of my University course, and if I had only had that one, I might be looking for opportunities outside of STEM because it wasn’t right for me but I loved my summer placement so much. I know now that it’s about company culture, and that there's a place for everyone within STEM.


That's a great statement!

“There's a place for everyone within STEM.”


Enigma People Solutions is an award-winning technology recruitment consultancy. We find technical leaders for the emerging and enabling technology industries. Visit our job search page for the latest vacancies in photonics, electronics, semiconductor, software and IoT in Scotland and the UK. Check out our blog page for the latest in the technology industry. You can get in touch with us hello@enigmapeople.com or call us on + 44 131 510 8150



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