A matter of perception: The IET president wants to show engineering has more to offer.
Naomi Climer, President, Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET)
1986 BSc Chemistry, Imperial College London
1996-2000 Controller technology, BBC News
2000-2002 Director, ITV Digital
2002-2006 Sony, director, professional services
2002-2012 Sony, vice-president, Professional Solutions Europe
2010 Joins IET Board of Trustees
2012 Becomes deputy president of the IET
2012-2015 Sony, president, Media Cloud Services
2013 awarded Fellowship of the Royal Academy of Engineering
2014 named International Association of Broadcast Manufacturers Woman
of the Year
2015 begins term as IET president
Naomi Climer has been president of the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET) – the international, trans-disciplinary professional body, headquartered in London, that represents and promotes engineering interests – for barely a month. As the IET’s first female president, she has spent a significant part of her brief time in the post – not to mention a while before taking it up – talking about gender issues. While she accepts this is hardly surprising, when I met her in her office, currently tucked into a small corner of the IMechE’s building in Westminster while the IET’s own offices off the Strand are refurbished, and told her I wanted to start by speaking about other matters as well, she let
out a small cheer.
Climer’s route into engineering has been an unusual one. “I can’t say I had much of a specific engineering interest when I was a child, or at school,” she said. Her degree is, in fact, in chemistry, which she studied at Imperial College London; but, after graduating, she was accepted onto a graduate scheme run by the BBC that combined hands-on experience with further academic study to train her as a broadcast engineer. “It was a conscious effort by the BBC to broaden their employee profile, both in terms of the gender balance and just in the type of people they had and looking back, I realised that I actually have always been interested in how things work and had had a phase of taking things apart and putting them back together again – or at least trying to – so maybe I had that germ of engineering after all. Certainly adjusting to engineering after studying science for three years wasn’t difficult for me.”
”We need a societal shift in the perception of how cool engineers are; the incredible, life-changing things they’re doing. It’s an appreciation you do see in California, with conversations about Elon Musk, for example, being commonplace
The BBC remained Climer’s employer for 14 years, then after a two-year spell as director of ITV Digital she joined Sony, initially in a role managing systems integration, then running the company’s professional solutions operation, which provides services to the broadcast industry and audiovisual systems for other sectors; and eventually running Sony’s start-up Media Cloud business in Los Angeles until earlier this year. The operation offers cloud-hosted production and post-production software that broadcasting clients can download. “I was very taken with the Californian can-do start-up attitude,” she said. “I went out there as a typical Brit, slightly cynical, but by the end of my time talking to people in the organisation had embedded the positivity. I’m still having to adjust back to being able to complain about things without people giving me funny looks.”
Climer mentions several times that she’d hoped that her generation starting out in engineering would be the one to open the doors to more women taking up the discipline, and that by the time she achieved a senior position, the gender balance would be much more equal. This hasn’t happened, however; it has remained steady at the low figure of five to seven per cent female. “I really thought it’d be a non-issue, but we haven’t moved on from where we were 30 years ago.”
But Climer said that her first priority for her presidency is to work towards changing the perception of engineering. This is, of course, something that has been much discussed in the UK; but different countries have different issues. “India, for example, sees engineering very differently from the way that we do in Europe; but the perception of the sector there can also cause problems, particularly with gender,” she said. “For example, they don’t have the problems that we have with attracting girls into engineering university courses, but very few of them go on to work in engineering when they graduate.”
For Climer, there are several goals in this perception challenge: to show how pervasive and fundamental engineering is to so much of everyday life; to spread the word about how it’s a creative, problem-solving profession that’s ultimately about people rather than nuts, bolts, engines and girders; and to demonstrate that it has much to offer all sorts of people.
This, she said, is connected to the very language we use, especially in Britain, to talk about engineering. “Changing the perception of engineering in this country is important to me; I’d like to work on that or at least kick it off. We need a societal shift in the perception of how cool engineers are; the incredible, life-changing things they’re doing. It’s an appreciation you do see in California, with conversations about Elon Musk, for example, being commonplace. In terms of language it’s subtle; connected to a typical British negativity, and the fact that anyone can call themselves an engineer in Britain.” Climer admits that she has changed her thinking; while she has thought that maybe a new term was needed to get rid of the ambiguity of the word “engineer” in Britain, she now thinks “maybe we should call ourselves professional or chartered engineers; people appreciate there’s a difference between accountants and chartered accountants even if they don’t know what it is”.
Part of the change needed might be “in terms of finding some positivity in the way we discuss projects; people talk about architecture on buildings and bridges, but we need to make sure the engineering is discussed as well, in terms of the problems that were encountered and how they were overcome”.
Climer said that there has been an encouraging change in the three years she was in the US. “I thought that in the media generally there could be huge, detailed discussions about the arts or
sport but when engineering or science and tech came up it would switch to ‘let’s see what those funny people have done’ and it was almost a badge of honour to not understand it. But now, it’s almost like saying you’re illiterate, and people accept you need to have at least a bit of tech awareness to function, and that is connected to science and engineering. there’s more of an appreciation that science is an interesting and important topic that we should all strive to understand more about, as individuals and a society. That has definitely started to shift, so more of the same please.”
Climer is aware of the view that somehow trying to persuade girls into engineering is a wasted effort; that girls just aren’t interested. But she rejects this viewpoint. “We have research where we interviewed parents teachers and children, and it seems that about age nine girls seem to get the idea or the message that engineering isn’t for them. I’ve also seen a very large, statistically rigorous academic study that showed that boys are interested in ‘things’ and girls are interested in ‘people’. The way I’ve been reflecting on that is to stress the ‘people’ stuff in engineering, but it is definitely perceived to be at the ‘things’ end of the spectrum, so it’s not surprising that most girls are put off it.” This is clearly an education issue, she said. “If I thought they didn’t want to do it, then fine, why force them. But we’re not using the right way to describe it; they aren’t interested in it because they’re hearing about it as being to do with things not people.. In my early experience, once I understood how it fitted with my interests I was all over it. Do I think boys and girls are different and interested in different things? Yes I do. But that doesn’t mean girls aren’t interested in engineering.”
”Do I think boys and girls are different and interested in different things? Yes I do. But that doesn’t mean girls aren’t interested in engineering
In general, Climer said, she would rather be inclusive; if a female role model were brought in to address students — which she is very much in favour of, and would like a wider range of ages and expertise in such speakers — then they should address mixed-gender groups. She also appreciates that some of the IET’s single-gender activities, such as Young Woman Engineer of the Year, have been controversial among both men and women. “My take is that I look forward to this not being an issue and not having to do anything about it, but it’s a fact that women are grossly underrepresented and we need to change it. Not because it would be fairer to women, but because I think there would be business and societal benefits to have more diverse teams.” In her experience, diverse teams are more creative and feel more natural to work in, although she concedes that they can be more difficult to manage. “But once they are all working together, these terms are superproductive.”
Climer would also like to use her experience in rising to a senior management position to help dispel the idea that engineers are best kept in hands-on roles within their organisations; the demands of engineering roles are valuable skills for management. “Sometimes people do need a nudge; if you haven’t considered it it’s quite common to not realise that you have the potential,” she said. “Mentors can be really useful here, just to encourage people to take that step. Admittedly, I did find management to be very different from a hands-on engineering role; but it was just as rewarding and I was using many of the same analytical skills, just applying them to the business rather than technological systems.”
In some ways this is a matter for companies to tackle, she said. “I do think there are some people who want to be subject-matter experts; and some people definitely think there’s a glass ceiling on salaries and so on if they don’t want to go into management. You need people who want to follow that track and stay in hands-on subject matter roles, so that needs to be addressed.” And taking on a management role can be difficult, she said; new managers feel like they’re abandoning the skills that got them to that point in their career and have to learn a whole new set. “But it’s an engineering attribute to want to understand what’s going on, and in management you do need to sort of raise yourself up and see the big picture. Things such as planning and an ability to extrapolate are engineering skills that are very useful in management. Even as a manager, my engineering skills showed in the way I analysed options and so on.” Although Climer thinks that this outlook could have benefits across all of industry, she added: “From personal experience I think that engineers would be more valuable to technology companies.”
Climer stressed the importance of ensuring workplaces are friendly and welcoming to a diverse workforce. “From my experience it can be very lonely and isolating to be the only woman in a big event or meeting. A women’s group, for example, can help tremendously with that; to know you’re not alone is a powerful thing.”