Womens Engineering Society: Inspiring women as engineers, scientists and technical leaders

Becky Margetts

Becky Margetts

I’m currently writing up my PhD thesis and am due to start work as a Lecturer shortly. I’m really looking forward to having a research budget to address the grand challenges of engineering in my own way! And I find teaching the undergraduates very rewarding. It’s been a long and interesting journey to get here…

The Journey
I always loved technology, and I was quite a tomboy when I was little. I grew up in mining and steelworking communities (in Cornwall and Humberside), surrounded by engine houses and smoking chimneys, and I was fascinated by cars. A kind uncle taught me how to service the family car and was delighted that I was interested in becoming a mechanic.

Becky MargettsAt school I was good at maths and science, even though I was aware that some people thought girls were less naturally able at maths and physics (now a discredited theory). I really struggled to understand how I could be female and get good grades at physics, and I always hated when people made a big deal about it. Eventually a teacher at my school suggested professional engineering, and put me in touch with the local steelworks for a work experience placement. I loved it! Going out on site to see huge ladles of molten steel being poured or enormous red hot billets being rolled was mind-blowing. There were so many varied jobs, each with the satisfaction of knowing that you are contributing to a finished product you can see and touch.

I went to Cardiff University to study Mechanical Engineering. Being from a low-income background, I was very conscious of the debt I would be getting into and chose a course that offered the best possible chances of employment. I was lucky enough to be sponsored by Ford Motor Company, which was a tremendous help, and working for them in my holidays and year out was a dream come true. Work experience not only looks great on your CV, but helps you make some choices about the type of engineer you want to be. I discovered test engineering, and in my final summer placement I was part of a team carrying out high-altitude testing on prototype vehicles in Austria. Being an Engineering student was fantastic: it’s a tough course, but there was tremendous camaraderie and a ‘work hard, play hard’ ethic.

When I graduated, I took a job at Westland Helicopters. My role as a vibration test engineer involved conducting tests on aircraft on the ground and analysing data collected in flight. Then I had to interpret that data for designers, customers and suppliers so that they could make informed decisions. I became very interested in dynamics, and moved into mathematical modelling. I worked my way up to a Senior Engineer, responsible for predicting how the aircraft would behave in certain conditions and building computer simulations.

Eager to find new challenges, I moved on to work for a consultancy. I worked on computer models to predict how new designs of Hybrid car would behave.

When the recession hit, like many people I found my position redundant. The wonderful thing about engineering is that your skills are in high demand and you are never unemployed for long! I took the opportunity to return to university (Bath University) and do a PhD, funded by the EPSRC with support from Airbus. As a mature student, I already had a good idea what challenges I wanted to study and why they were important. A crucial part of obtaining research funding is demonstrating the ‘impact’ it can have on society.

During my PhD I have travelled all over the world presenting my work, have been published in a leading journal, and have made a contribution to my field of modelling engineering systems. I have also gained valuable experience in teaching and transferring knowledge to industry. Best of all, I largely manage my own time and can work flexibly – I think that’s important for women who have other commitments in their life.

Some Thoughts on Being Female
I always felt that I was a natural engineer, so I’ve always found it strange when people remark on how unusual it is for a woman to be an engineer. Most of my colleagues over the years have been supportive although there have been instances of well-meaning individuals inadvertently holding back women (because they were worried that we won’t like getting dirty, can’t work alone or have some family commitments). As a general rule, I think it helps to be open about your lifestyle and pro-active in your personal development.

People have all kinds of ideas about women being good at this or biologically adapted to that, and most of them have no scientific basis. There are some frightening statistics and assumptions about the kinds of lives women lead. Always be true to yourself. I found it helps to build a strong personal brand, so that people know they are dealing with you and not just some generic female statistic.

On a personal level, my mother took a long time to accept that I wasn’t “normal” and cut out for a caring profession or the humanities. She was very worried about me working on “dangerous” dirty sites with older men! But I think she now recognises that engineering is a worthwhile career and I can look after myself. In the UK at least, there is a lot of legislation and guidance to protect workers: engineering companies have to give you a Health and Safety induction, and if you are sensible and follow procedures, there is no need to worry. My work is largely office-based now.

I am close to my father, and I live with a long-term boyfriend: both appreciate me being financially independent, and are really supportive of my career. It’s nice for us to be able to share interests and talk about technology. My boyfriend sometimes flies out to meet me after foreign business trips, and we travel all over Europe. We are currently renovating a house together.    

Becky Margetts, MEng (Hons)

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