Professor Helen Atkinson CBE FREng is the Head of Department of Engineering at the University of Leicester
“We need to break down stereotypes about what engineering is.”
How would you describe your current role to someone who knows nothing about engineering?
I am head of the department of engineering at the University of Leicester, with responsibility for about 750 students and around 70 staff. The areas of engineering we look at cover aerospace, mechanical, electrical, electronics, materials and software.
Why did you choose to go into engineering?
I originally wanted to be a physicist but while I was at university I discovered materials engineering. When you look down a microscope at the microstructure of a metal it is fantastically beautiful, but the structures you see also have meaning; they determine the properties of the metal – its strength, toughness, resistance to high temperatures and so on. I find that really exciting.
Tell us about an achievement that you are most proud of.
I led the rebuilding of our students’ union at Leicester. I wasn’t doing that as an engineer but rather as a senior academic at the university taking responsibility. However, it gives me a huge sense of achievement that I led a team through a challenging time to deliver a superb building on time and to budget.
How do you think gender parity in engineering can be achieved?
Young people (girls and boys) need to be much more aware of what engineering involves when they are at school so that they can make the choice. We need to break down stereotypes about what engineering is. It is not the mechanic in the dirty overalls lying under the car but rather the exciting process of making the world a better place.
How has being a woman in engineering changed since you started working in the engineering sector?
There has been a lot of progress since I became an engineer. For example, in the early stages of my career I was asked at an interview whether I was “following my husband around the country”?! There is now a much stronger atmosphere of professionalism in the workplace, and many companies place a strong emphasis on that.
What would you say to someone considering a career in engineering?
Engineering is a hugely enjoyable and rewarding career with great possibilities for development. If you enjoy applying science, conceiving a solution to a problem and bringing that solution to reality, then it is for you. It is deeply fulfilling to work with a team of people on a problem and solve it. Engineering creates the future and will help the world to tackle challenges, such as access to clean water and climate change, which are threatening the wellbeing of populations.
I would also like to emphasise that there are now lots of opportunities for combining family with engineering. I have three children and worked part time for more than 12 years whilst the children were at primary school.