Julia King DBE FREng, Baroness Brown of Cambridge, is former Vice Chancellor of Aston University
“I get huge satisfaction from solving problems and making things.”
How would you describe your current role to someone who knows nothing about engineering?
My current full-time job is running Aston University as Vice Chancellor and Chief Executive. Aston is a university closely focused on engineering, science and business, so I get to use my engineering training, expertise and networks in supporting the academics in a range of ways. Networks with business and industry are important in helping to establish research collaborations and teaching links, and also for placements for our students; 75% of Aston students take a placement year in industry or business as part of their degree.
The other aspects of my engineering background that get used all the time in a senior management and leadership position for a large organisation are: approaches to problem solving; creativity and identifying new solutions; logical reasoning; proper use of data to develop theories and make decisions; and strategic planning. Being highly numerate helps as well, whether it is looking at accounts or considering conclusions people are drawing from data in areas as diverse as HR, student admissions or research income.
Why did you choose to go into engineering?
I get huge satisfaction from solving problems and making things, I was good at maths, physics and chemistry at school, and I studied natural sciences at university, specialising in metallurgy. I realised that what I enjoyed about science was finding interesting ways to apply it and solve problems, as well as seeing my work put into practice and make a difference.
What do you like most about being an engineer?
Solving problems, making things and making a difference. It is a very creative job and provides huge satisfaction. It is also increasingly well paid. Creative, satisfying and you get paid well is a pretty compelling combination.
Tell us about an achievement that you are most proud of.
It is hard to identify just one, so here are a few examples. I have been an academic for much of my career, and I am hugely proud of the success of my PhD students – one of whom recently became a Fellow of the Academy himself – and of many of the students I have taught.
I was asked to produce a review for the Treasury on decarbonising road transport in 2006. The recommendations of my review (The King Review) led to a number of policies, in the UK and overseas, to encourage the take up of low emissions vehicles, many of which are still being followed and have had a global impact. As engineering director of the Rolls-Royce Marine Business, I played a leading role in ensuring the business developed a new marine gas turbine, the MT30, which is now a successful product. As a member of the Committee on Climate Change, contributing to the UK’s first five carbon budgets has been a very important and influential activity. Being made a Crossbench Peer at the end of last year is also something I am proud of.
How has being a woman in engineering changed since you started working in the engineering sector?
Not enough, the numbers of women haven’t risen much over my career, and there aren’t many senior role models. I think it is most difficult at the start of your career when it feels very competitive and you are trying to establish yourself. When you get through to senior levels, you get a lot of respect, and I think it is much easier to be in a small minority.
How do you think gender parity in engineering can be achieved?
We need to eradicate the idea that there are ‘boy’ and ‘girl’ subjects which seems to be a message that children get from a very early age from the media, advertisements, some teachers, parents and toys. Girls need to believe that they can be just as good, if not better, at maths and science as boys, and need to be given a picture of engineering that is about creativity, problem solving, helping people and societies, and job satisfaction. Women are taking over in medicine (a branch of engineering in my view) and are reaching equal numbers on biomedical engineering degree courses, so it is possible where the subject has the right image.
What would you say to someone considering a career in engineering?
If you enjoy science and maths, get real satisfaction from solving problems and making a difference, like working with people in teams and constantly learning new things, then engineering will offer you a wide range of really exciting opportunities. It is also a job that will still be needed at the end of your career as much as it is now (but it will be different in lots of exciting ways). So many of our big global challenges need engineering solutions such as renewable energy, carbon capture and storage, clean transport and water.