Julia King DBE FREng FRS, Baroness Brown of Cambridge, is a crossbench Member of the House of Lords.
“Engineers can change how jobs are done. By making traditionally ‘men’s jobs’ into ‘everyone’s jobs’ we can improve things for everyone.”
How would you describe your current role to someone who knows nothing about engineering?
The House of Lords is a revising chamber. Our main role is to improve legislation that comes from the House of Commons by introducing amendments when we think the legislation will not deliver on its stated intent, or where we think it can be made more effective. I concentrate on legislation relating to my interests in engineering and technology, research, universities, and climate change and environment.
Why did you choose to go into engineering?
I was always good at maths, physics and chemistry at school, and I enjoyed solving problems. My first degree was in natural sciences, specialising in metallurgy, and my PhD was focused on looking at why metals fail. My subsequent career has involved research in materials, academic leadership and leadership roles in industry in aerospace, energy and marine engineering.
Please describe your first job in engineering.
I did a PhD and a Research Fellowship following my degree. My research was about why the metallic alloys we use for major structures, such as nuclear pressure vessels, and components, such as the turbine discs in aeroengines, fail. How does the way that the metal has been produced and the resultant microstructure affect the way that cracks initiate and grow? What can we do to make materials more resistant to crack growth?
What do you like most about being an engineer?
Solving problems: gathering the evidence, either by practical research – testing specimens and components – or from literature, doing the analysis, putting together and testing theories, and finding the solution.
The result is very satisfying and the path to the solution is often fascinating: learning new things, getting frustrated by dead ends, excitement when the results seem to support your assumptions.
Tell us about an achievement that you are most proud of.
Leading the King Review on decarbonising road transport for the Chancellor of the Exchequer (Gordon Brown at the time) between 2006 and 2008. Many of the review’s conclusions continue to be part of our policy framework to reduce emissions from transport as part of the Climate Change Act. Innovate UK’s Low Carbon Vehicle Innovation Platform, which was supported as part of the response to the review, helped initiate many of the current developments in electric vehicles and other low emissions technologies in the UK.
How has being a woman in engineering changed since you started working in the profession?
There are a lot more of us around, although still nothing like enough. I started my career in an academic environment, which was relatively supportive; although I did get teased a lot in the lab for not knowing how to use a hacksaw properly, and my inexperience with much of the rest of the contents of my toolbox. I moved into industry at a senior level, so I think I was spared some of the experiences of new female graduates, but there were only two senior women engineers in the company at the time, and sometimes it was clear that colleagues didn’t know what to make of us, or how to treat us.
What would you say to someone considering a career in engineering?
If you want a career where you will get huge satisfaction from problem-solving and being creative, working with clever people, and feeling that you are making a difference, you will find it in engineering.
It is the sort of career that can take you to lots of different places and offer lots of different opportunities. Engineering skills are in such strong demand that you won’t have much trouble finding jobs that you really enjoy.
This year’s IWD theme is ‘Balance for Better’. How can engineers contribute to a gender-balanced world?
Engineers can change how jobs are done. By making traditionally 'men’s jobs' into 'everyone’s jobs' we can improve things for everyone. For example, changing maintenance of offshore wind turbines from being a job that involves going out to sea and clipping yourself to a ladder to inspect blades to a job where you can sit in an office and direct a drone that attaches a small robot to carry out maintenance activities. Eliminating jobs that are traditionally done by women and girls in the developing world that stop them from going to school; for example, by providing piped water and electricity to rural communities, so that women and girls don’t have to walk for miles each day to fetch water. Making a better, safer world by using the technologies that we are developing can improve things for everyone.
This profile was created for International Women’s Day in March 2019. All information was correct at time of publication