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Insights INWED 2019: A conversation with Louise Hetherington

14 June 2019

image of Louise in safety clothing

Louise Hetherington joined Atkins, a member of the AtkinsRéalis group, as a graduate in 2016 and is currently working as a structural engineer, regenerating old factories, heritage and at-risk dilapidated buildings. On top of her busy schedule, Louise is determined to transform the industry from a diversity and inclusion perspective. As part of this effort, Louise represents our Infrastructure business in the UK & Europe Diversity & Inclusion initiatives, is a Mental Health First Aider and STEM coordinator, and plays a lead role in our Enable network!

In the lead up to International Women in Engineering Day (INWED) on the 23rd of June, #insideAtkins is speaking to colleagues from across our business about their perspectives on gender balance in our industry and how they’re “Transforming the Future” for others. Hot on the heels of her Best Young Woman Engineer award by Women in Construction & Engineering (WICE), we spoke to Louise about her experience as a woman in our industry and why she thinks action towards improving diversity and inclusion (D&I) is so important.

image of Louise collecting an award

Was there a definitive moment in your life that steered you towards a career in engineering? 

“As a child I loved maths and geography and wanted to build my own house. I initially wanted to do architecture, but found I was more suited to a different type of creativity expressed through figures and definitive answers. So, I discovered structural engineering, which is taking architectural designs and making them conform to rules.”

Did you have any exposure to the engineering industry before pursuing a role in it?

“No. Neither of my parents are engineers. And none of teachers knew what it was either. I chose to be an engineer at 13 and did my first engineering work experience at 15. At 16 I left school to go to a mixed college, which was more set up to cater towards supporting an engineering career.”

How has your experience been as a woman in the industry?

“I was prepared for it being very male dominated, but I don’t really notice it in our business. Atkins is clued up to the challenges women might face, whereas some clients and contractors are not at all. So, when I’m at meetings, I make sure I’m mentally prepared.

“For example, we’re bidding on some work for a big client. At a recent meeting, our client made a comment which was meant as a joke but was clearly offensive. Internally we have a great support network, and I would feel comfortable challenging anyone. But I feel I can’t challenge my client – it might mean overstepping the mark. So in situations like these, I do start to notice the ‘gender difference’.”

How would you grade the engineering industry in terms of getting women involved? 

“It’s encouraging to see just how much the industry is doing to attract women now. In particular, it’s doing much better at going into schools and reaching girls.

“But retaining women in the industry is where we need to improve. The industry hits a stumbling block when it comes to engaging women in their mid-thirties. We’re working at it though and a good example in our own business is our STEM returners programme, which is looking at how we can get women back after a career break.”

Why do you think there aren’t more women in engineering today?

“If you ask girls if they’d consider engineering as a career… at age 11, 60% will say yes, but at 6th form, that drops to 35%. 41% of girls take physics exams for their GCSEs but at A-level that drops to 22%. Maybe some are thinking about what they want to do next, and just not considering engineering?

“I think we should be educating teachers on how to keep engineering open as an option for girls. I love STEM events but doing a STEM event might get 30 children excited. Whereas, getting a teacher onboard can open up opportunities to hundreds of children. It’s shocking how few teachers talk about engineering, and its just because they don’t know enough about it.

“But we’re trying to change this. In Bristol, we have good links to local schools – and it’s making a difference. I was involved in creating the ‘Engine Ears’ school packs that inspired 7-11 year olds and helped teachers talk about engineering. Our office is also in regular contact with a careers’ teacher who feels free to contact me with any questions. ”

Why do you think awareness and action around diversity and inclusion is important to the engineering industry?

“Diversity and inclusion improve business performance, people feel more included and work more efficiently. When everyone’s the same, business becomes less innovative. So raising awareness to help people understand D&I is the area I’m particularly interested in.

“Diversity is how we are different. It doesn’t just mean your gender or race, it also means diversity of thought. Hypothetically, two white male engineers sit in a room. They look the same but they’re from different backgrounds. One came through an apprentice route, the other from public school and university. So both men could have very different ideas when it comes to designing a community facility. People who look the same can still give you a diverse perspective and exciting, converging ideas.

“Equality is being treated the same, but it isn’t enough, we need to consider ‘inclusion’, which is how individuals feel. We can’t tell how or when people feel included. It’s defined by each person’s feelings. Some people feel included when you just say ‘hello’ and others may need to be personally invited in. We can’t dictate what being included means to people.

“So while we should treat everyone equally regardless of who they are, we also need to bring people into the conversation to know how they’re feeling. Inclusion is never assuming you know how people feel about a situation, but always being open to people telling you how they feel.”

In what ways do you champion diversity and inclusion in your role?

“By raising awareness. I’ve put together a resource called ‘Inclusion Moments’ that we can use at the start of each meeting. It helps people who aren’t comfortable speaking about diversity and inclusion topics to just pick a card out of the pack and present a ready-made short talk. It has been collaborative – networks including LGBT+ and BAME have contributed to the resource.

“I’ve recently had ‘unconscious bias’ training and can now train other people. It’s all about raising awareness about all the biases we have. Once we recognize them, we can start consciously making fairer decisions.”

Do you have any role models who inspire you, or mentors who helped you achieve the position you’re in today?

“I’ve had very supportive managers. All of my managers have enabled me to attend STEM events, D&I days, inclusive leadership training, and D&I steering committee meetings. I still do my full weeks’ worth of project work, but flexible working really helps me do everything else that’s important.”

The theme of this year’s International Women in Engineering Day is “Transform the Future”. What do you think the future holds for women in engineering?

“Unfortunately, despite all the efforts, the number of women in engineering has remained static. However good stories are coming out in the media that will encourage more women to consider a career in our sector an interesting and viable option for them. The more we can publicise women in these places, the more support they will have to continue their engineering journey. It’s hard to say what the future will hold for women specifically – hopefully we will increase the numbers one day through wider advertising.”

What’s one action that people can take to help make a career in STEM a more attractive choice for women?

“Just talk about it. You don’t have to be a teacher reaching out to students; talk to your friends who might pass it on to their children. Let everyone know that engineering is broad and welcoming no matter who you are. The more people know about it, the more people will want to become engineers.

“In 2017 when I became Ambassador for the Queen Elizabeth Prize for engineering, we explored individuals’ perceptions of engineering. We asked, ‘How do we tackle the issue that not many people go into engineering?’ The problem is engineering is such a broad term, it’s used for things that aren’t strictly engineering.

“We need to explain it and make it clearer.. People, boys or girls, won’t enter into a career that they don’t understand.”

Go to inwed.org.uk to see how you can get involved in International Women in Engineering Day this 23 June – and dive into the conversation with #INWED19