Too many women believe engineering means getting your hands dirty, according to Kim Dennis. ‘Engineering still has this image of being a job where you get your hands covered in oil, but it’s not all like that you can go into so many fields,’ she says.
In Dennis’s case it has taken her into electronics, where, in her role as IT infrastructure manager with Marconi Communications, she was this month named Young Woman Engineer of the Year. At 26 she is one of the award’s youngest winners.
The award, sponsored by the Institution of Incorporated Engineers and the Caroline Haslett Memorial Trust, was established 21 years ago to bring more women into the profession, and to raise the profile of incorporated electrical, electronic and mechanical engineers in general. Progress has been slow just 268 out of 51,109 incorporated engineers registered with the Engineering Council are female.
The award judges were impressed by Dennis’s success at work, and the fact that it was achieved at a relatively young age. She manages a team of 30 computer specialists and is involved in running projects. Being a manager does not mean being removed from engineering work itself, however. ‘I like the technical side of it they are always introducing new technology here. I also like working with people and being able to guide them.’
Dennis’s interest in technology dates back to her time at a small secondary school in Coventry. ‘I was more interested in doing technical subjects than in cooking or sewing. Only one other girl did the same subjects as me. We got a few sarky comments from the lads at first but we just got on with it.’
Although her teachers were encouraging, she had to go elsewhere to discover how to use her skills. ‘They didn’t say to me at school: Yes, you can be an engineer. It was only when I went to outside careers advisers that they told me about engineering.’
She believes that the ‘oily hands’ image should be tackled through the education system. ‘Engineering should be publicised differently. Schools should encourage it from an early age.’ It was easier for boys to go into technical careers because they were expected to. ‘It was just natural for them to go that way,’ she says.
Keen to do something different, she left school at 16 and took an OND in electrical and telecommunications engineering at Coventry Technical College as part of an apprenticeship with GEC Plessey Telecom (GPT). She stayed on at the college and gained her HND in the same subject in 1992.
After college, she stayed with GPT, now Marconi Communications, working her way up from system support specialist to her present role as IT infrastructure manager.
One of Dennis’s recent projects was to bring ‘thin client’ computer technology to engineering workstations, giving PC access to Unix users. ‘It was brand new technology. We had technical challenges as well as having to teach users.’ She is now managing a project to set up a group working and e-mail system for Marconi Communications in the UK and Italy.
She is the first member of her family to go into engineering. ‘They have encouraged me all the way,’ she says. But she initially encountered some old-fashioned attitudes at work. ‘If I went into a meeting with people who didn’t know me, they would look surprised that I was young and female but could talk about technical subjects.’ At such meetings, she is sometimes asked if she is a secretary.
‘You just prove that you can do the job. It’s hard work, but once you prove it, you get a good reputation.’
Dennis believes the substantial media interest in the award could encourage more women to become engineers. She has been getting up to 10 interview requests a day and has appeared on local television and radio. ‘It is great publicity for engineering as a whole. It’s also great to see the pictures of the finalists so other young females can look at them and think Yeah, they look alright.’
Her message to women who may be considering joining the profession is typically enthusiastic: ‘Come in, it’s great!’
In her spare time, Dennis leads an Air Training Corps (ATC) squadron of 40 cadets. This takes up two evenings a week, plus the occasional weekend camping or abseiling. ‘I enjoy teaching the cadets and developing their leadership skills. I also make sure the training staff are OK, make sure there is a training programme in place and organise the weekends.’
Dennis first took to the air in a powered glider at 16. ‘The engines take you up, and then they switch off. It was absolutely fantastic.’
Since then she has flown regularly. Being an ATC officer, however, means getting to fly just once or twice a year.
Would she like a full-time career in the air? ‘It’s just a hobby,’ she says. ‘I want to get more into management.’ Despite the gliding, Kim Dennis is keeping her feet firmly on the ground.