Meet some of the women making a difference at Ocado Engineering

The gender gap in engineering and, more broadly STEM careers in general, is no secret. However, just because this is not new news, doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be treated as a key issue within engineering that we should strive to change.

This divide seems to stem from two core issues: the number of female engineering applicants for engineering roles and the atmosphere experienced once they enter the field. It is therefore of paramount importance that companies create an environment where every individual employee feels respected and valued, and that we do whatever is in our power to influence the decisions of young people, particularly young women, to enter engineering careers.

The two issues above are also contributing to a wider challenge for engineering companies in the United Kingdom and mainland Europe: many are facing a general shortage of good engineers. Despite this concerning trend, we have been able to assemble a product development team of forty-five here at Ocado Engineering. Although the applications we’ve received for these roles have been predominantly from men, I believe we have recently employed some of the best female engineers this country has to offer. I am keen to focus on encouraging more female applicants in the future, as there is no reason why this field should continue to be male-dominated.

In order to understand this gender divide further, I thought it was important to talk with some of the female engineers currently working in my team, to hear a little more about how they got into engineering, their experiences so far and how they thought we could encourage more women into the field in future.

Madhavi and Sam followed quite different routes into engineering. Sam completed an apprenticeship after school and then worked as an engineer for seven years before joining Ocado. She is now studying for her bachelors with all the benefits of being a highly experienced engineer.

“It was only when I started looking into apprenticeships that I realised how much of [engineering] was maths and physics based, offering the satisfaction of solving real life problems.”

Madhavi, on the other hand, went straight into a university engineering course after her school education.

“I really enjoyed Physics and Maths at school, but I also loved art – being able to be creative and imaginative. Creativity is a crucial element of engineering that I don’t think many people are aware of. I was also really into F1 racing, so when it came to deciding on my degree, I went for automotive engineering with motorsport. The good thing about working in Ocado Engineering’s Product Development team is my job involves being creative and imaginative, while also using the physics and maths skills I have developed.”

Madhavi has been with us since September and is currently working as a Project Engineer improving the reliability of our manual recovery robots. This role involves some very complex finite element analysis, while also managing the relationship with an external company. The product was not meeting its reliability criteria and the supplier was struggling to resolve the issues, but when we recruit high-end capability of the kind Madhavi has to offer, she enables us to not only identify the problems, but identify and manage a company to solve these problems.

“What attracted me to Ocado Engineering was the fast-paced development outlook, with a great deal of enthusiasm shown by those that work here. What struck me is that each day at Ocado is a learning curve and we are all given the freedom to use our skills and put ideas into practice. The constant innovation means I am always learning and creating things, which is very important for development as an engineer.

“Ocado Engineering also recognises the need for engineering qualifications and will be helping me to reach my goals of getting formal qualifications to help my career progress. Management here is very supportive and there is a good pass-down of knowledge and processes. The team ethic is great, with a fantastic atmosphere within the office.”

Sam began her time at Ocado on a rotation scheme, experiencing different departments within our division including CFC development (CFCs are our highly automated warehouses), procurement, site installation, and product development, but has now settled into her current position as CFC project engineer.

“My role is to improve and replace current warehouse equipment with more robust and efficient alternatives. I use my engineering experience and technology advances to implement better solutions, reduce downtime and thus improve production. Since joining Ocado I have experienced so many new things and I am always learning. This is what I love about Ocado: innovation is the heart and soul of the company. I’ve been lucky enough to have had some amazing mentors, and in just a couple of years it has helped me grow both as a person and an engineer.”

While they both seem to get real satisfaction from their work, I thought, in order to understand the gender divide further, it was very important to find out whether their experience as engineers had always been positive. As it turned out, Sam had definitely seen the darker side of being a woman in engineering.

“While working for my previous company, I had to eat in a separate room and use a toilet in a different building to the men. I was the only woman working there at the time. This slowly changed over five years, but it was by no means a company that made me feel like part of the team. I still faced discrimination over maternity leave and the constant suggestion that I would not be as good at projects, despite consistently achieving the highest test scores. The gender gap in engineering had never specifically put me off, however the culture of discrimination that had developed at my previous company made me consider quitting on more than one occasion.”

I was pleased that both Sam and Madhavi had very positive things to say about being female engineers at Ocado, but it was disheartening to hear that being a woman in a male-dominated field can still be so tough. I hope that this is the exception and not the norm, but either way the industry needs to strive to eradicate such behaviour, and as a result encourage more women into the field. I was curious to know what successful measures they had witnessed to this end.

Sam noted the real effort many universities were making to increase the number of female engineers entering the workforce, alongside other inclusion measures.

“Universities play their part by often having ‘women in engineering’ events and making sure all female engineering graduates receive careers advice. There has also been a push to raise awareness of engineering as a career from a young age; my daughter participated in a competition where kids had to draw a picture of their mummy the engineer, which she really enjoyed. This inspired the book ‘My Mummy is an Engineer’, which promotes engineering as a possible career option for girls while they are still very young and unlikely to have been affected by stereotypes. So it seems attitudes are changing, even if it’s taking years.

“I am Jessie, age 5. My mummy is a mechanical and electrical engineer. Here is a picture of her in her overalls and hard hat fixing a train.”

“I am Jessie, age 5. My mummy is a mechanical and electrical engineer. Here is a picture of her in her overalls and hard hat fixing a train.”

Madhavi also thought it was important to start getting children engaged in engineering early on, having recently been involved with an engineering scheme for children in the local area.

The Royal Institution runs workshops for children aged thirteen to fourteen where they can experience different aspects of engineering. In March I went along to one of these workshops as a guest speaker to talk about my route into engineering, the products I am developing for Ocado, and to lead one of the workshop sessions. I was pleased to see that boys and girls were attending in equal numbers and that the girls were very engaged and active during the session. It’s initiatives like these that have a chance to prevent stereotypes developing and can encourage more girls to enter the engineering field.”

Royal Institute workshop, March 2017 – Session with Madhavi from Ocado

Royal Institute workshop, March 2017 – Session with Madhavi from Ocado

Before we can truly close the gender gap experienced in engineering, we must have more female engineering graduates entering the workforce year on year. In order to do that, we should encourage more children to develop a curiosity for the discipline. The Royal Institute of Engineers workshop is a perfect example of an initiative that can ignite this curiosity, but what more can be done? Sam is very enthusiastic about encouraging the skills needed by any good engineer at home.

“I think parents and schools have a very important role to play in defining their children’s capabilities and expectations for the future. If we enforce stereotypes at young ages, these misconceptions will progress into adulthood and affect later career decisions. I make electrical circuits with my son and daughter at the weekend, and they both love it, just simple little things like powering propellers or speakers. I think it’s really important for parents to get involved. My kids also both play with dolls. We should try to make sure we never enforce what they should and shouldn’t like doing based on their gender or any other distinguishing factors.”

Role models throughout both education and career also play an important part in making sure people can see themselves progressing in a certain field. Madhavi recounted her early days in engineering and the importance of having a successful role model held for her.

“When I started my career, there was already a very established female engineer on my team. This gave me something to aspire to and helped me realise my full potential. Having someone who has been on a similar journey in their career to you is a great support. Outward facing women working in engineering will result in more women training to be engineers.”

It is for this reason that we like to encourage our female engineers, and those from other minorities within engineering, to be at as many public facing events as possible, seen and heard by a wide variety of audiences. If you see someone like you succeeding in a role, it will diminish any doubts that you could not be happy and successful in a similar role.

The impression I have received from talking to female engineers at Ocado Engineering is that, while attitudes are certainly changing for the better, we should all still be doing more to encourage female applicants both now and in the future, in the workplace and beyond.

Sid Shaikh, Product Development Manager

george smith