When Claire Drew was very young, her father, a Merchant Navy deck officer, came home from sea to take up a shore-based job. That’s when it all started. ‘He seemed to have discovered his own second childhood,’ remembers Drew. ‘He would get out his Scalextric set, and I would play alongside him. I followed him everywhere. As soon as I was able to, I would carry his toolbox when he went out to fix the car. I was his little apprentice.’
Drew, now just turned 30, was this month given the accolade of Young Woman Engineer of the Year, an award scheme now in its 20th year and run by the Institution of Electronics and Electrical Incorporated Engineers and the Caroline Haslett Memorial Trust.
The idea of the awards is to focus attention on electrical and electronic engineering as a worthwhile career for a woman. Only 14% of people starting on any kind of engineering course are women. In 1984, the figure was 7%.
‘When I started my HND course at Liverpool Polytechnic in 1987 I was the only woman out of 80 students in engineering,’ Drew says. But she stuck with it. For one thing, she was well able to handle the maths part of the course, and traded her know-how on that front with other students who were better at other elements of the course. ‘It was the kind of teamwork that is part of being an engineer,’ she says. And it soon got her accepted as just another engineering student.
Not that Drew was unsettled by being surrounded by men. Before starting the HND she did a summer job as an auxiliary coastguard – a staunchly male dominated environment, but also one where she met her future husband, Les.
‘I suppose I was always a daddy’s girl, and I have never been fazed by being the minority in a mainly male environment,’ she says. ‘But it is true that for many women this can be intimidating – even getting through college, let alone pursuing a career in engineering.’
Drew began her engineering career in 1989 at the British Aerospace Military Aircraft Division in Warton, Lancashire, as an avionics systems engineer. She was later transferred to Southport, and then moved to join GEC-Marconi Avionics in Rochester, Kent, in 1995.
In her present role as systems engineer manager in the helmet displays group she is working on the helmet-mounted sight system for the Jaguar RAF upgrade. Her responsibilities include system integration, verification and validation.
She clearly loves the job – and says that during her entire working life she has never felt discriminated against because of her sex. ‘It is a professional working environment. I’ve never felt that kind of frustration, and nor to my knowledge have any of my female colleagues,’ she says.
Drew has a three-year-old daughter, Natalie, who could not hope for a better role model than her mother to encourage her to go into engineering. A recent report by the Engineering Council suggested that parents who give their daughters dolls to play with risk turning them into technophobes later in life.
Drew rejects this: ‘If she wants a doll, I will get her a doll, though at her age she will rip apart whatever it is you may give her. But I still think things like Lego are much more interesting to play with.’
For Drew, the reason few women consider engineering is more to do with the attitudes of their parents than with stereotyped nurturing during childhood.
‘Many mothers still think of engineering as a dirty hands job that is not suitable for a girl to do,’ she says. ‘It is that, and anxiety about working in an environment numerically dominated by men.’
One of the things that made Drew a strong candidate for the award is her campaigning work in schools, where she speaks to pupils about what an engineering career is really like. For many of these pupils, she is the first professional engineer – male or female – they have met.
Drew describes herself as tenacious, rather than thick-skinned. ‘I believe there are women who have a much tougher time of it than I have in engineering.