Dr Frances Saunders CB FREng is a Trustee of the Royal Academy of Engineering
“You have no idea where such a career might take you, and that is the best thing about it.”
How would you describe your current role to someone who knows nothing about engineering?
I have retired from full-time work, but now spend most of my time in the voluntary sector, supporting activities that encourage more people into science and engineering careers, and assessing and recognising engineering achievements. I also give talks aimed at stimulating discussions on increasing successful innovation.
Why did you choose to go into engineering?
Since I was a child I had always been fascinated by science, not just the big questions about life the universe and everything, but also the very practical side of how things work. I loved taking things apart and trying to put them back together again.
What do you like most about being an engineer?
Being able to make a difference - these days, more as a leader, and inspiring others to make a difference too.
Tell us about an achievement that you are most proud of.
Leading the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory, where I was chief executive for six years. I was able to support our scientists and engineers to do some great work, contribute to the safety and security of the UK and, although it might sound trite, know that some of the technology we contributed really did save lives.
How has being a woman in engineering changed since you started working in the sector?
In the 1970s, I was the first female graduate trainee at British Leyland in the motor industry. It was really unusual to be a woman working on the technical side of manufacturing in those days. Now if you go into a car assembly building, you see lots of women as well as robots. In the civil service, where I spent most of my career, it was easier being a technical woman but I am pleased to see more women in science and engineering leadership roles than when I started out.
How do you think gender parity in engineering can be achieved?
You have to start young, at primary school age, to encourage girls to be curious about the world and stimulate their interest in science. Later on in education, I do think it is important to stress the breadth of opportunities that studying science and engineering can offer. Of course, that means teachers being good at teaching science, but also knowledgeable of the world of work.
Activities and engagements that get girls involved in types of work including engineering can help, especially those that encourage creativity and the use of technology to solve problems. It will take a holistic approach to girls, their parents and their teachers to encourage more to join us in engineering; there is no magic bullet.
What would you say to someone considering a career in engineering?
Go for it. There is no one right way to be a successful engineer. Focus on something or some area of work you think you will enjoy, keep curious and keep questioning how you might help create something new or do something better than it can be done at the moment. You have no idea where such a career might take you, and that is the best thing about it.