Interview: Thoughts on International Women’s Day from a former F1 engineer

For this year’s International Women’s Day, Ellie McCann spoke to design engineer Kirsty Pinnell about her own personal experience as a ‘woman in STEM.’

Kirsty Pinnell

The push for more diversity in the STEM fields has, thankfully, been at the forefront of people’s minds in recent years. In particular, there has been a lot of focus on getting more women into the science, engineering and technology workforces, so much so that the phrase ‘women in STEM’ has become a movement in itself.

However, although the initial thought is there, much more action is needed to bridge the gender gap in both STEM education and industry as a whole.

According to research collated by STEM Women, using findings from the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) and the UK government’s census data on occupation, 31 per cent of core STEM students in higher education are women or identify as non-binary. Engineering and technology subjects, in particular, were found to have just 21 per cent of their cohorts made up of women or non-binary students.

Whilst the actual number of women and non-binary people in engineering and technology education has increased, this is mostly reflective of a general increase of all students across the courses (126,660 students in total in 2017/18, to 185,725 in 2022/23). The gender percentage increase, though, has stayed much the same, moving from 21 per cent in 2017/18 to 23 per cent in 2022/23.

Of course, underrepresentation in STEM education results in the same for employment, as women make up just over one quarter (26 per cent) of the overall STEM workforce, according to the latest government census figures.

There has been a gradual yearly increase in the amount of female STEM professionals, with STEM Women reporting that, in engineering specifically, the overall percentage has risen from just 8 per cent in 2016, to 12 per cent in 2022/23.

Shockingly, despite this gradual increase, at the current rate of change we would not see equal representation in STEM until the year 2070.

“Whilst things may be improving, it is still imperative that female representation in these roles remains a focus. Younger females need to know that a STEM career is open to them to the same extent as ‘traditional’ female roles,” said Pinnell, STEM ambassador and current Composites Engineer and Design Lead at the Lightweight Manufacturing Centre (LMC) in Scotland.

“The more women that believe an engineering career is for them helps make a heavy female presence within this industry a normality. There is no reason in this modern world why there shouldn’t be a 50/50 split. We need to look past gender and look at skills, competencies, experience and ability instead.”

Whilst this underrepresentation is a clear and pressing issue for the industry, the former F1 engineer wanted to stress that the experience for women who are in the engineering and technology industry isn’t necessarily a negative one.

- Kirsty Pinnell

When asked about her time studying Mechanical Design Engineering at the University of Glasgow, Pinnell, though always encouraged to pursue her desired path of engineering by her parents and school teachers, said: “There were obviously more guys on the course than women, it was probably around a 70 to 30 split – but, for me, I didn’t notice that I was in the minority because it didn’t matter.

“That being said, I do feel as if I’ve had quite an easy route into engineering in that I haven’t felt like my gender has posed any barriers or challenges, even right at the start at university.”

Just as every graduate, regardless of gender, Pinnell worked hard to secure her next step of a postgraduate MSc in Motorsport Engineering with management from Cranfield University.

“Once I had found the course, I thought ‘it can’t be as easy as that,’ and it wasn’t, actually, because they came back to me with a conditional offer saying that as I had no practical motorsport experience, I would have to get some before I was offered a place.

“I got myself an ‘apprentice’ mechanic position at a little racing team in Fife for two or three months of the summer, mentored by one mechanic who was a woman. It was like the stars had aligned, as I was learning from a woman who was already there doing it.”

Once studying at Cranfield, Pinnell secured one of the few thesis projects offered by Williams F1, during which she made recommendations for a change in the core splice adhesive that the team had been using for years, resulting in weight saving across the entire car – so much so that they still use Pinnell's recommended adhesive today.

Even once stepping into the world of work, joining Williams as a Composite R&D Project Engineer in an, again, male-dominated working environment, Pinnell didn’t feel as if her gender was a focus.

“I was promoted to Composite Design Engineer within a year, helping the senior design engineers out with some of the main composite structures on the race car. It wasn’t long until I had my own assemblies to lead, and I then became a Senior Design Engineer in 2018, leading the design of the entire floor and diffuser assembly.

“My boss promoted me to the Senior Design role a month before I went on maternity leave for the second time. Now, I’m not naïve enough to think that every woman who has worked in engineering has had the same positive experience as me, especially when it comes to the unnecessary challenges around taking time off to start a family or raise children.

“Of course, there were moments then when I felt insecure and wondered if I was jeopardising my career, especially after I reduced my working hours to four days a week after the birth of my second, but these feelings are part of the stigma that we need to smash!”

Pinnell left Williams last year, deciding to relocate to her hometown of Kilmarnock in Scotland, to take on the role of Composites Engineer and Design Lead at the LMC, a specialist technology centre within the National Manufacturing Institute Scotland.

“I was the first female engineer in the Williams’ design office, but when I left, there were so many more women in engineering roles, it was unbelievable. I left the assembly that I was in charge of to two female engineers,” said Pinnell.

“At the LMC, I’m involved in several projects, from studies looking at automated composite material deposition methods to the design and manufacturing of a space launch vehicle and proprietary hydrogen storage vessels, and part of a steering committee to implement PLM software for better management of design data.

“I’m still learning and have been introduced to a range of topics, such as out-of-autoclave curing methods for high-performance composites and design for manufacture by injection moulding, but thankfully there has never been a question mark around my gender.”

Through her connection with Williams and in her current role, Pinnell is involved with STEM initiatives for students at primary school level, to those considering their higher education and careers, spreading the message that no one should have to make their gender a consideration in what they want to do in life.

Indeed, this positive message of inclusivity should be pushed alongside the engineering route from the very start, so that all young people know that, even if the industry is male-dominated, this does not mean there isn’t space for everyone.

With STEM schemes and industry work experience opportunities, engineering and technology firms can show that they are actively working to irradicate any gendered stigma in their workplaces, with leaders and mangers in particular at the forefront of this.

“Especially for male managers wanting to support their female employees, make the more ‘female’ conversations around children or menopause commonplace,” said Pinnell. “There shouldn’t be an avoidance around women’s health, there should be an open-door policy for everyone in the workplace.”

When asked for her final piece of advice for young people, particularly young girls, wanting to become our engineers of the future, Pinnell concluded: ‘just go for it.’

“My experiences in engineering roles have been really positive, and I hope that going forward there is enough of that positivity so that no one ever feels like they can’t do what they want to do.

“Work hard, choose the right subjects, and just go for it. If you’re applying for a job and you have the right skill set, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t get that job, especially not because of your gender –  it doesn’t matter what gender you are, you can be an engineer.”