Arlene McConnell, IET Young Woman Engineer of the Year
Radar and Advanced Targeting Systems Engineer
Can you tell us a bit about how you came to be in the job you are currently in?
I joined SELEX Galileo as a graduate systems engineer where I participated in a two year Graduate Development Framework. The Graduate Development Framework programme is designed to introduce graduates into industry and equip them will all the skills, training and experience they will require as engineers.
As part of my training I completed four different project placements with diverse applications. These included laboratory test and integration of a surveillance radar within the Seaspray project, laser reliability test design within the Elecro-optics department, flight trials data analysis within the Citation project for the US Customs and Border Protection Agency and finally modeling and interface definition for a fire control radar within the Gripen project.
What attracted you to this area of work?
I was attracted to engineering because it is one of the few professions where it is of the utmost importance that you continuously increase your knowledge and improve your skills. I am a perennial learner and love to discover new concepts, theories, tools and methods, so it really suits me to work in a company which is a leader in its field and which designs and works with cutting edge technologies. I also found myself excited by the challenges that are embedded in every engineering task; I enjoy having to be creative and adaptive in the methods I use to problem solve.
As an engineer, I can use these methods for lots oft of applications: research, modelling, integration, build, test, design, documentation-- the list is endless, so I knew I would have the chance to gain experience in a variety of fields and really stretch and test myself. I was also attracted to the fact that engineers often work as part of a team.
At SELEX Galileo, we work on different products in Integrated Project Teams, where we bring together engineers from different backgrounds and specialities. Systems, Mechanical, Software, and Hardware engineers, as well as Commercial and Finance specialists, to make the highly successful products. I also think engineering is a prestigious profession where it is possible to gain a sense of achievement and recognition. At the end of the day, I can point to a Radar that has been used by the Coast Guard to rescue people in distress or a laser which saved the life of a pilot and say that I contributed, I was part of the team that made that possible. This gives me an enormous feeling of contentment and pride.
In what ways were you encouraged or discouraged to pursue your chosen career? Please explain further.
I arrived at a career in engineering by a slightly unconventional route. Instead of attending university straight away, I opted to work for a couple of years in a variety of jobs and served in the gulf as a Regiment Gunner as part of the Royal Air Force. It wasn't until after I returned from overseas service, I realised that I had spent a fair proportion of my spare time building things and I discovered I really enjoyed this aspect of the experience. I decided to complete a HND in Automotive Engineering.
I was encouraged by the head of the engineering department to apply to university so that I could learn more about electronics and electrical engineering, as this was the part of the Automotive course I enjoyed most.
I was never actively discouraged from going into the engineering industry; however, I never discovered my passion for engineering until I saw it being applied by people I respected. I didn't think during school that Electronics and Electrical Engineering was within my capabilities, because it was never presented to me as a possible career path. I feel like I would have saved some time and started out on my career earlier, if I had a role model to show me what I could do.
Did you encounter any barriers trying to pursue your chosen career along the way?
I once thought that I had never encountered any of the serious barriers that I know affect others, either in college or when I graduated from university. However, on reflection, I did see evidence of the scary statistics of women in STEM. For example, I was the only girl in the automotive engineering department for the entire two years I spent at college, and one of only a handful of girls who graduated from my degree course who went on to take up a position in industry.
Have you had to make any compromises to do so?
To me being the only girl was never anything to worry about, I have never cleaved to stereotypical paradigms either in jobs, hobbies or sports. I am aware that this does dramatically affect other young women, but I believe we only learn what we are capable of when we see examples of it. I am a good example of someone who might have missed out on becoming an engineer through lack of a role model at an early age.
Sometimes, all young women might need to kick-start a STEM career is to see someone like them, someone accessible, championing that field. Personally, even now that I am on my way to a successful career, I still need to seek out positive, highly prolific women to continually motivate, reassure and inspire me.
What subjects did you study at school/college/university?
I came to a career in engineering later than usual so the subjects I studied at school weren't necessarily applicable to engineering. I had to go to college in order to gain core knowledge in maths and the physical principles of engineering. However, when I'm giving talks about my career to people at school, I always remind them that in order to be successful in almost any profession, they need to be committed, dedicated, and team-oriented.
There may be key subjects that they will need to have in their toolbox, such as maths, but this is only one of the tools that they will need, and they should not rank it above all others. As an engineer you also need to be innovative, creative and passionate in order to drive forward technology and contribute to making new and exciting products.
What advice would you give to other girls and young women who are thinking of pursuing the same career as you?
I would say that they should never be afraid to challenge themselves, that they should seek out the aspects of engineering that they are passionate about. Once these are found, be it designing space shuttles, cracking codes or toppling Google, they then need to apply liberal amounts of hard work and enthusiasm to get themselves to where they want to be in that field.
They need to know that there is a plethora of support and advice available to them at every stage of their career, because there are women just like them who have acted as pioneers: leading the way, continually improving and empowering others as well as furthering the fields of engineering and technology. They need to know that there is always help and a role model available to them, and they should not be afraid to look for either.
How would you encourage more girls and young women to study science, engineering and technology subjects?
I think that engineering is not often associated with creativity even though most of the greatest achievements in technology started with an innovative engineer.
As the IET Young Woman Engineer of the Year I hope to showcase engineering, especially to young women as a profession that encourages and relies on creative thinking, that will challenge their ingenuity, and which will always recognise and celebrate their achievements.