Paula Clarke on Ada Lovelace and the art of networking for diversity

Ada LovelacePaula Clarke has been appointed Leonardo’s new Engineering & Projects Director and during the month that celebrates Ada Lovelace Day, she wants to drive more diversity into the engineering profession.

Clarke wants to do this by encouraging others to create their own career opportunities, using digital platforms whose origins can be traced right back to Ada’s first innovations.

Ada, Zaha and creativity: the soul of engineering?

On Ada Lovelace Day, Leonardo will be sharing insights into its female engineers’ daily working life across its digital channels, to encourage more girls and women to consider engineering as a career. In addition, the company’s STEM Ambassadors will be sending a coding teaching pack to Primary Schools across the UK to encourage the next generation of coders. The pack includes a lesson plan for teachers, which covers the history of Ada Lovelace and her achievements, as well as guides and worksheets for fun activities to introduce the basics of coding to students.

An awareness of the importance of diversity as an enriching force for good is something that Clarke brought with her, when she flew 3,000 miles from Kuwait to the UK the week after her 18th birthday to seek new opportunities. Having grown up in the Middle East with friends from many different cultures, she soon found that her ability to draw people together from divergent backgrounds could play a powerful role in an engineering setting.

Each year, Ada Lovelace Day celebrates the pioneering female innovator to promote more gender equality in industry, academia and the community by raising the profile of women in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM). The idea for Ada Lovelace Day came from psychologist Penelope Lockwood, who recognised that women need to see real female role models such as Ada to understand “that high levels of success are indeed attainable.”

Clarke’s career is proof that a proactive approach works, since many of the promotions and opportunities she took were as a direct result of her being approached by people from her existing network who knew her as an individual first, and a professional second. Her network was crafted from a foundation of wanting to connect with like-minded individuals who sparked her own drive and motivation.

You can create an opportunity if it isn’t already there

She said: “You can use so many networks around you – social platforms, networks through schools, digital groups and there are fantastic organisations out there that help people to step outside their comfort zone. One of the things that I always say to young people when I’m going into schools is: build your network, do things that people might not expect you to have done – things that make them do a double-take when reading about your achievements, and do things that you are not necessarily rewarded for then and there. Use the networks through social platforms to get stuck into things you wouldn’t otherwise have the opportunity to learn about.”

When she first arrived in the UK as a young woman, Clarke took a job in the railway business starting on the first engineering rung as a technical officer, calculating stresses for the rail during re-railing projects. Her skills soon grew and she progressed through several successful roles in the defence industry, before attaining her long-term aspiration of working in the aerospace industry.

Clarke said: “I started out my career working with teams of fantastic men and all they cared about was whether I worked as hard as they did. They didn’t ever make me feel aware of my gender, they didn’t care I came from a different background, all they wanted to know was whether I put the effort in. That was my first foray into the engineering world and the concept of being able to walk on to a site and then transform it when you leave it 12 hours later because you’ve been dealing with the product hands on is something I’ve been excited by ever since.”

Clarke wants to encourage others to pursue the job that scares them a little – and grasp the opportunity they don’t think they’re quite good enough for, as from experience she has found that after scratching the surface, people usually find they can do most of the role and the rest they can learn.

She said: “As I progressed through my career, I learned that the people in the really senior aerospace roles were just like me – they grew into their roles rather than being the whole package from day one. They had opportunities presented to them, or maybe a little bit of luck or grasped an opportunity, but they were the same from the perspective of not knowing it all, making mistakes and learning some elements as we go along.

“We can teach maths, we can teach coding, software and firmware. What you can’t teach is enthusiasm, drive, attitude and that self-belief that says ‘I might not have the full skill-set you are looking for right now, but I can learn and I will make this work’. The reality is sometimes you can create an opportunity if it isn’t already there. There is an element of creating your own luck through the way you behave and playing to your strengths.”