[Interview - Part 4] - Female Engineers, Transforming the future - Miranda Lowther

Posted 9/3/2020 by Benet Hanley

Enigma People Solutions has a continued dedication to support women in STEM. Through our partnership with the UK Electronics Skills Foundation (UKESF) we were able to send seven female students to attend the WES Student Conference at the end of 2019, up from three last year. We recently caught up with some of the students to find out their thoughts on various issues ranging from their thoughts about the event and gender diversity in the electronics industry.

Fourth in this mini-series, we are chatting with Miranda Lowther, Electronic Engineering student at the University of York.

Unfortunately, Miranda was not able to attend the WES conference this year but when we reached out to her she had some clear ideas about women in STEM and the engineering industry in general and most intriguingly the standing Engineering has in UK society and how this might influence people’s perception and interest in a career in Engineering.

Could you please tell me a little bit about yourself, and what you study?
I’m Miranda, I study electronic engineering at the University of York, and I'm currently in my final year of a Master’s degree. Recently, I've become more specialized within the field of control engineering and robotics, and my final year project is working on actuators for Tensegrity robots. Tensegrity robots are articulated soft robots that can be used in harsh environments, such as rough terrain, underwater and even in space. It's a fascinating concept of robotics, many Tensegrity Structured Robots are currently formed through a combination of struts and cables or springs, where each element experiences purely linear compression or pure tension.  The combination of compression and tension elements helps maintain its both rigid and flexible structure.

I'm originally from South Wales, one of three children, my brother studied electronic and electrical engineering and was also a UKESF scholar. My mum studied an English degree and then became a chartered accountant, so I'm familiar with people changing careers and going into STEM subjects, and the backlash of being women in STEM even from the seventies. In general, I very much love the outdoors, I also do weightlifting and practice Brazilian jiu-jitsu.

That’s amazing. You mentioned something about the backlash of being a woman in STEM, and then you go on to talk about some martial arts that you do. Is that preparing to combat the backlash of being a woman in STEM?
No, definitely not, “laughing”. My brother did Karate and Kungfu since he was very young, and he's been trying to get me and my sister to do it for many years. When I was on my year in industry, I decided to do it, and it's definitely useful as a stress relief.

It sounds like you've got quite an inspirational family. Who or what inspired you to go into electronics?
When I was younger, I remember vividly that we went on holiday to a theme park, and I became fascinated by the robots (audio-animatronics) that they had there. To me, it looked just like magic because they moved and looked human, but they weren't. I couldn't get my head around it and kept thinking about it. Throughout school, I didn't know that was a field that I could go into, even to the point of GCSE. I was contemplating doing law, but then I picked up physics as an A-level subject, and my physics teachers really helped to widen my horizons and become more aware of the different opportunities and fields within STEM. That combined with the fact that my brother was in the first year of his undergrad. I looked at some of what he was studying, and I realised that I can go into robotics.

You mentioned before we started recording that you went to an all-girls school and that about 50% of the year was involved in some STEM subject at school but only a small percentage of those went on to study STEM subjects at University. Any thoughts around why that might be?
Well, I'm not sure if it's specifically related to my school or just a general thing. I noticed that some of them weren't taking maths or felt that they weren't very confident in their mathematical skills. Engineering wasn't really promoted that well in school unless you were fully aware of it and actively made an effort to look more into it. When I talked to my friends from back in school, their automatic association with engineering is the standard thought of an engineer is a plumber or an electrician. That perception that an “engineer” isn’t a protected status like “doctor”, I think, possibly damages the image a little bit. So maybe that's also links to why some people are gravitating more so towards medicine rather than engineering. 

I feel we should link maths more towards the applications and show how it can be applied such as with engineering. This will broaden people's horizons to be more aware of the areas that they can go into. My brother and I have gone back to both of our respective schools to give talks on promoting engineering STEM and UKESF. There have been cases where girls have turned up to my talks, and a couple of them came up to me and had previously had no idea of the variety and specialities within engineering.

It sounds as though you believe that further promotion of the electronics industry at school level is needed.
Yes, I was really grateful that my UKESF sponsoring company Renesas offered for some of us to volunteer at local school’s sixth form careers evenings to promote the STEM field and working life in Renesas. That was a really useful opportunity, but there’s also the issue that it’s hard to explain to a 17 or 18-year-old what a microcontroller is. Because we're still at that stage where people who aren't in the technology field only see the end product, they don't see all the different bits and pieces, so trying to explain all the different bits and pieces in the space of two minutes or so, is a little tricky. It would be a good idea to put programming in as a subject that we teach from a younger age. I think it should be taught at the same time as reading and writing because it's going to become incredibly vital as an integral part of work in general.

Having gone to an all-girls school, what were your feelings and thoughts when you went to University, and suddenly you were in a very male-dominated lecture auditorium?
It wasn't so much a problem in a negative aspect, going straight from all-female classrooms to a male-dominated classroom required just a different kind of energy almost. It was a very definite change in energy in terms of people. At University people were far more confident in putting forward their answers. Initially, I did feel a little bit self-conscious or nervous about putting forward my own opinion or being more forward. I think it was also partly down to my preconceived apprehension about what being around men was like or what men are like in general. The experience shifted my opinion about gender roles and what it takes to be an engineer and the difference between men and women in terms of equality of gender, where we've attached masculinity too much to men and femininity too much to women. Some of the guys that I've come across through engineering have been some of the kindest, sweetest, and most talkative people I've ever come across, which people normally associate with a more feminine type of personality.

Everybody that I've worked with has been professional and helpful it’s been a positive experience in my case. Maybe I could have been a little bit more confident in my earlier years, being more forward or asking other students to go over work or to learn more to expand my horizon.

What I found interesting was the reaction from people who are outside of the degree program and how they think about STEM. One time I was helping a first-year try to find her way home because she was a little bit lost. She asked me what degree I was doing, and I said, “electronic engineering.” She said, “oh, there's a lot of men in there. You'll be able to find a husband.” I haven't come across any of that when I've been working with people in engineering.

What excites you about the UK tech industry? 
I'm excited about how technology in the past decade has been far more integrated into everyday life, in terms of how that positively impacted the image of the STEM field. Asides robotics, the addition of AI into our industries, for example, with finance, driving (self-driving cars), and also in healthcare. This morning I was reading a paper about using a biologically inspired algorithm to improve how robotic limbs move when they're used for rehabilitation therapy. To me, we can now more clearly than ever see how technology is helping people. That really motivates me and makes me incredibly grateful to be studying this field or being an engineer in this time, day and age where our work can more clearly be seen.

Why do you feel that it's important to have events like the WES Conference, and how does that help women into STEM careers?
I'd say that one of the benefits is that it provides an environment where some people may feel comfortable with learning. It helps people get a wider idea of what female engineers are. I think it's a great opportunity to widen your horizon and see that anybody with the skills can pursue a career in engineering and that you don't have to fit into a particular mold. Some people do feel more comfortable in such an environment - talking about diverse areas, and it can help generate different ideas. 

I went to a “women in technology” related conference last summer in London and found it eye-opening and reassuring to see so many women there talking about software and electronics. That was definitely a bit of a positive uplift of confidence as it did make me feel a little bit less of having an impostor syndrome. I am curious that there might be particularly high cases of women feeling like they are an impostor and that they have to “prove” that they deserve to be there. It's really useful to feel that sense of camaraderie when you're at the women in technology style events but also it's great to learn about new and more current things. 

What advice would you give to the industry to help increase the number of women and girls involved?
One thing I'd say is that it provides more opportunities. If we're talking specifically about people over the age of 18, providing opportunities for women after A-level to consider a career change into STEM. Capturing those people who were interested in technology before going into the GCSEs and A-levels and maybe reigniting that for them and showing them the STEM fields in a new light.

I have come across a few people who have A-level in maths or sciences and will be more than happy to go back into STEM fields. It's just that they need further expansion in terms of training or that they don't know about the opportunities they have. Just widening the search space might help a little bit.

Lastly, you've been a UKESF scholar. What has the program meant for you?
The UKESF has been a cool part of my career growth. It definitely helped me become more confident in my skills and knowledge. For example, we had a workshop week when I started my year in industry, and the UKESF students went through a series of talks. I found that motivating and also reframed my idea of what it takes to be an engineer, who an engineer can be, what an engineer is, and the work that an engineer can do within the field of electronics. 

It also helped with my passion for outreach activities. I've done volunteering when I was younger, but when I was on my placement, I went to do an outreach activity with Stew Edmondson at Imperial College, London. Just a quick talk about my experience in the UK as a student and what I've done to get to where I was. It helped remind me about how important it is that we keep on promoting and showing students, their families, and people around them that engineering is more than what they think it is. Engineering is one of the crucial ways of how we work, it's how we live our lives, and without engineering, we'd be nothing. Then also my year in industry at Renesas helped me improve my technical skills and my work ethic, I came back feeling I had a better approach on how to get all my work done and handle my final year.

Fantastic, thank you so much for sharing some time with us today, and to talk me through some of these questions. Is there anything else you'd like to add that maybe you haven't mentioned before we end the call?
I see engineering as the bind between science and creativity! At the end of the day, engineering is taking what we've learned about sciences and maths and using them as tools to create something. I think putting across that aspect of creativity will be a really good idea in terms of engaging with people more.

Yes. I'm going to need to steal that phrase “engineering is the bind between science and creativity”. I love that.  
It’s something that’s stuck with me for years. I remember when I was doing my a-levels, someone told me that because I was doing languages and sciences, I had to choose between creative subjects and sciences. I had to pick one or the other, and that stuck with me in terms of ‘no, you don't, engineering is both.’

Enigma People Solutions is an award-winning technology recruitment consultancy. We find technical leaders for the emerging and enabling technology industries. Visit our job search page for the latest vacancies in photonics, electronics, semiconductor, software and IoT in Scotland and the UK. Check out our blog page for the latest in the technology industry. You can get in touch with us hello@enigmapeople.com or call us on + 44 131 510 8150


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