“Listen to your heart”: Inspiring women to pursue engineering
22 June 2022
To celebrate International Women in Engineering Day (23 June), DPA’s Editor, Sophia Bell, caught up with Dr Pooh Ling E, Associate Professor at NMITE, to talk about gender equality in engineering and how the radical higher-education institution is breaking down the barriers for women in this field.
Dr Pooh Ling E
1. How has the engineering industry evolved over the last few years with regard to gender inclusivity?
I do see more women represented in different roles and at different levels of engineering, including those in the LGBT+ community. More leaders of big global tech and engineering firms recognise and promote gender inclusivity. However, I notice that the number of women who choose to join the engineering industry remains low. It is a challenge we need to recognise and address.
2. Why do you think that women are still underrepresented in the engineering field?
The requirements or pre-requisites to join most engineering degree programs in traditional higher education are very rigid and science based. They require good levels of mathematics and a few pure science subjects (most require physics), in order to be considered to study an engineering degree. However, most women in secondary schools or at pre-university level are not encouraged to study mathematics and science at a higher level. This limits their opportunities to study engineering and eventually become an engineer.
3. How do you feel NMITE addresses what some may consider the limitations of traditional higher education?
NMITE is doing something revolutionary in engineering higher education. As a start, we eliminated the rigid requirements of studying mathematics and physics at A level, as we teach these as part of the course. This will encourage more curious minds with a keen interest to know how and why things are working to apply engineering at NMITE.
Secondly, the engineering modules in NMITE are run in blocks of 3.5 weeks. The students will learn and complete one module from 9 am to 5 pm in 3.5 weeks, before progressing to the next one. By doing so, they can fully focus and dive deeper into learning the concepts and apply their knowledge and skills.
Thirdly, there are no traditional sit-in exams in NMITE. Instead, students will be assessed on a range of assessment types; for example, presentation, debate, specification, industrial report, project plan, and so on. We are preparing our students for what the industry demands: a new generation of engineers who have the ability to learn and pick up new skills as the work demands – and are brave enough to present and argue their ideas with supporting facts and data.
4. How is NMITE helping to change perceptions of engineering and making the profession more accessible for women?
As NMITE removes the requirement of maths and physics at A level, this makes the door to engineering wider, particular for women who have not chosen these two subjects at A levels. We also welcome applications with prior experiential learning. This has prompted some female students who previously had obtained a non-science degree to join us to become an engineer.
We believe, that to be an engineer, possessing a combination of characteristics like grit, curiosity, passion, creativity, collaboration and the ability to communicate is more important than having a high grade in maths and physics.
5. What role does NMITE play in the ‘levelling up’ agenda and helping to fill the skills gap, more generally?
NMITE is located in Herefordshire. Herefordshire employs a higher proportion of people in manufacturing than the national average. However, half of the manufacturing in Herefordshire is classed as low technology. Our industrial partners, who are mostly SME owners in Herefordshire, often told us that it is hard for them to hire people with the right skillsets locally.
For the past few years, IET Skills Surveys have also indicated that the supply or quality of young people entering the industry is a key concern, as is their lack of workplace skills. The major problem often raised by most companies is having candidates with academic knowledge but insufficient workplace skills. These are cognitive and interpersonal skills like teamwork, collaboration, initiative, enterprise, and self-learning. All these will become more important as engineering jobs are transformed by technology.
In NMITE, the students do not just learn engineering. The opportunities to learn and build the important professional and interpersonal skills mentioned above are intertwined and embedded in all our engineering modules. Students are grouped in teams to work on engineering and community challenges. They learn how to resolve their conflicts, hone their negotiation skills, and learn how to contribute effectively while working in a team.
NMITE’s presence in Herefordshire will also encourage local young people to stay within the community to study higher education in engineering, instead of leaving the county to study and get employed elsewhere. We are hoping NMITE graduates will then be employed by local industry, which is always seeking young talents.
I believe NMITE and the series of programmes and projects that will be rolled up by NMITE in the near future will make a meaningful impact at levelling up locally and nationally.
6. What inspired you to pursue engineering in the first place? What barriers did you face when starting out?
For me, I always loved science and math subjects from a young age. I loved how I can derive complicated equations from first principles and the magic experiments that I could perform in the science labs. Socio-economy was one of the main driving factors for me to pursue engineering as engineers are respected and earn a higher income than average in South East Asia, from where I came.
I was lucky that I was with a few global multinational companies (MNCs) when I started. I was a product and test engineer. There was already a significant presence of female engineers in the big MNCs that I joined, so I felt comfortable working in those environments, although there were still more men than women. I didn’t feel intimated. Instead, I was being encouraged to present my ideas and views, and argue my points in all the engineering meetings or conferences.
7. What would you say to young girls and women who are considering becoming engineers themselves?
Listen to your heart. Find out what makes you excited to wake up every morning. If it is about making the world better, by creating something to make someone’s life easier, you could be the next great engineer. Never underestimate yourself and never let someone discourage you to pursue your passion.