(This is the full version of an interview published in the summer edition of Forward, my college magazine)
The number of girls taking physics at A level dropped from 23% in 2000 to 21% in 2010, highlighting a trend that girls tend to avoid choosing subjects that will lead them to a career in science, technology or engineering. So why are girls less attracted to these careers? And what is it really like to study these subjects?
I interviewed Automotive Engineering student Laura Wooton to find out.
Would you describe the course are you studying university?
Automotive Engineering with motorsport – it’s fundamentally a mechanical engineering degree, but the further on in the degree you go, the more it braches off into automotive technology. I’m in the first year at the moment, and only one of the eight modules is a specialist module, all the others are common to Mechanical, Aerospace and Automotive, but by the final year, most if not all of the modules will be automotive based.
What or who inspired you to study automotive engineering?
My family have always watched Formula One, I grew up a stones throw from Donington Park, and even though I never used to like it that much, it’s grown on me over time. I’ve always been good at maths and science, so I guess it was natural to mix the two loves together!
What does your course involve?
It’s very full on in every aspect – long days (9AM – 8PM some days, Monday to Friday), there’s always work to be done, a huge amount of course content of which most you don’t understand and have to go away and study, lots of practical hands on work relating to CAD (primary CATIA, the industry standard CAD software and by far the most common. My university is also the only university in the UK, if not the world, that actually teaches it’s student to use CATIA), engines (Petrol dynomometer labs, Diesel dynomometer labs, setup and hardware labs), manufacturing processes (mostly with metals and on CNC machines), materials research, and it’s rare to get lots of free time in the week, but then the quality of the course is exceptional, and we get some incredible opportunities like the Formula One simulator (the same as three Formula One teams!) which we have free use of and we do several pieces of coursework on, we have a fleet of Go-Karts which the university has recently invested in and we do a coursework based on setting up and racing the karts around the Rye House circuit. It’s a hard course, but ultimately very enjoyable, and very rewarding!
Can you describe you ultimate goal or dream?
Ultimate goal would be Chief Technical Director of a top three team and to be the first woman to have built a car to win a championship
Traditionally, careers in engineering don’t attract many women, why do you think this is?
It’s always been a man’s career. Going back hundreds of years, it’s something men have always done and I think this has just stuck. I think now it’s changing a lot, but it’s still a subject people come into from a love of cars and mechanics and machinery, and that’s the thing guys seems to be more into than girls.
Are there many females on your course?
Nope – there’s two of us.
Do you feel you get treated differently on your course compared to the male students?
Definitely. I’ve had a few people round the uni (lecturers, technicians, research students) who have said to me that the girls always do well because they have work hard to prove themselves above the boys. I think what it is is that they know the girls won’t muck around – they are genuinely there to learn, whereas you do find there are some boys who are there because they got the grades at A-Level, but only really wanted to mess around with cars or be a racing driver, not learn complex engineering, and then they get onto the course and find out it’s hardcore maths, not racing or tuning up cars all day and they don’t give a toss about the course, don’t pay attention, don’t even try to learn anything, so they generally like the girls because they know they are there to learn. Also with a lot of lecturers, I think they just like having girls on the course – most of them generally seem to find it fascinating that we are interested in all the nitty gritty engineeringy stuff, so they always seem to like us.
Has the minority of women in the industry ever put you off your dream?
No, it’s just made me more determined to achieve it, plus I got told by one of the research students that ‘They like the females in Formula One’, which I suppose shows there is that ‘gap in the market’ for female engineers, and the sport is trying to fill it.
Do you think it’s difficult for women to make it in male dominated industries such as Formula 1?
Definitely. I think it’s difficult to be able to get to a senior position because it’s never really been done before and male dominated industries are very intimidating, so for girls, there isn’t someone in the industry you can go to for advice on the matter because there are few women if any who’ve been in that position.
Have you faced any challenges on your path to your goal?
Daily – the sheer amount of work stresses you to hell! But I’m very, very fortunate I got into Hertfordshire – they make the path as smooth as it can be really!
What advice would you give to others wanting to study automotive engineering at university?
Go for it! It’s a fantastically enjoyable subject, and you don’t have to want to do cars! My physics teacher in high school studied Automotive Engineering, and there are lots of jobs in the city for any type of engineer. It’s very intense, but if you like cars, it’s very, very enjoyable. If you do want to do it to go into an automotive career, make sure you know what area you want to go into and choose the right university – If you want to work for someone like Audi or Porsche, you go to Stuttgart, if you want to work for Rolls Royce or Bentley, you go to Loughborough, if you want Formula One, you go to Hertfordshire. Like with my university, we get Formula One teams asking for graduates each year, and we’re the only university they ask. If you want to go into Formula One and you go to another university, you have to be exceptional. On the contrary, I wouldn’t have a very good chance of getting into Rolls Royce if I wanted to because they like Loughborough students.
Also, be prepared for the work. It’s not all about taking engines apart – the maths and science side is very intense 100% of the time, so you have to work hard, but definitely worth it! And such a fun degree!