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Women in STEM: Karen Given, Senior Systems Engineer at McLaren Applied


Eloise Stenner, Technical Assistant for Reddie & Grose LLP, was pleased to interview Karen Given, Senior Systems Engineer at McLaren Applied.

Why did you get into Engineering?

Engineering is something I got into gradually – I didn’t suddenly think ‘Engineering is for me!’ I am dyslexic so I found subjects like English more frustrating and tended to enjoy and excel at more number based subjects.

I studied Maths, Further Maths, Physics and Chemistry at A Level. Then, as I was choosing my University degree the A Levels I had taken presented me with opportunities to study subjects like Physics, Chemistry or even Medicine. This is when I discovered Engineering, it isn’t something you study generally at school so this was the first time I really thought about pursuing it as a career. I did an Engineering-related week long course during my A Levels which helped me have a better understanding of the subject, however, I still wasn’t sure.

I happened to find a course that allowed me to do general Engineering for the first two years, this was great as it allowed me to get a broad understanding of Engineering before choosing to specialise into Mechanical Engineering and Aerospace. 

Before university did you know you wanted to go down the mechanical, aerospace route?

No I didn’t – that is why I chose a university which offered a general Engineering course. I am glad I chose the general course as I gained a lot of experience and exposure to different elements of the job. Most Universities don’t offer this general course so I also applied for electronic/electrical Engineering for the Universities where the general course wasn’t available. In hindsight, this was quite interesting seeing as I chose the mechanical/aerospace route in the end.  

Is there a teacher or individual or anything that influenced you to choose Engineering?

It was mainly a passion for me. Both my Grandpa and Grandad were in the Engineering space. My Grandad worked on WW2 radio products and my Grandpa was a Chartered engineer who worked on heating systems, so I had awareness of what Engineering entailed from an early age beyond the standard stereotypes of hard hats and safety boots.

Do you think protecting the term ‘Engineer’ as they do in Germany would help encourage the younger generation to enter into the Engineering profession?

I do think the protection of the title ‘Engineer’, as it is in Germany, would help but I think it also important to have an awareness of what a Chartered Engineer is.

For myself, knowing what a Chartered Engineer truly is meant I was quite passionate about becoming chartered as soon as I could. The badge of being a Chartered Engineer gives Engineering more of a prestige and helps highlight that Engineering isn’t all about wearing hard hats and safety boots. Yes, I have worn hard hats and safety boots before but that has been when I am inspecting something I have designed and created from scratch.

There can sometimes be a lack of awareness of the level of understanding and effort that is needed to be an Engineer. It is also important that we spread awareness of how vast the field of Engineering is and how much Engineers and their work influence our day to day lives.

What advice would you give to women who are interested in entering a STEM based profession?

Do what you have a passion for and pursue what you enjoy. I know women in engineering that studied a wide range of different subjects at A-level – art, for example, which shows it is important to focus on what you enjoy and there will always be something which you can find a way forward for.

If in doubt, I think Maths is a particularly useful subject to study at A-Level. It is important to keep your options open and give things a try. Also, Engineering is so broad so ask for guidance and seek experience to help provide a better understanding of what’s available to you.

Do you think there are stereotypes of women in this industry?

have come across a lot of different women in Engineering while I have been working and I have never been aware of people fitting into a particular standard stereotype. There are so many different areas of Engineering and a wide range of skillsets to fit a range of people.

Female presence in the office highlights the gender gap in the industry, however, what is good to see is that there appears to be a conscious effort and desire to make a change – including from my male colleagues. Personally, I don’t believe there are barriers or stereotypes attached to female engineers, in my experience anyway. People in this industry are very open and keen to have a diverse team.

Current shortage of engineers in the UK, do you think the general shortage will encourage women into this profession?

The industry shift to encourage sustainable transport could encourage more females to join the profession. I think people are attracted to the opportunity to help with the environment and contribute to a future sustainability goal. For example, having worked on electronic inverters you know you are helping with trying to transition cars from being combustion engines to being electric. It is a really positive feeling of knowing that you are helping the future environment.

From a female perspective I think it would be good to highlight from a young age what the role of an engineer is and the positive impact you can have on the world if you pursue that role. There are a number of studies out there that show that females lose interest in STEM subjects from an early age so it would be great if we could get more female science and engineering role models out there to help promote the subject and provide a broader insight into the opportunities available. Getting younger people to think about the influence Engineers can have on the things they use day to day such as public transport or mobile phones, I think is important.

It is also important to ensure parents understand the opportunities available within engineering and the breadth of the field.

What has your career progression looked like so far?

I left university with a Masters in Engineering and joined a large Aerospace company on a graduate scheme. The scheme enabled me to rotate around the different areas of the business which I was grateful for, as it really exposed me to many different sides of engineering. I gained an understanding that there are just so many different aspects to the role – I learnt it wasn’t just the design aspect – there was the aerothermal side, the business side and the manufacturing side, for example.

After that I was lucky enough to do a secondment in Asia for six months. This opportunity to travel is another great aspect of the Engineering profession which is not promoted enough. I then returned and worked my way up to become a design technical lead on a part in the Aerospace company.

After a while I decided to explore other industries outside of Aerospace and was interested in McLaren Applied and what they did. The role that I found here was a Systems Engineer. I have now progressed in my career to become a Senior Systems Engineer where I work on our future inverters, working as the interlink between our customers and core project team to effectively integrate the inverters for future customers.

It is a great sense of achievement to witness product launches that are featured in presentations and magazines, knowing you contributed to the developments. It is such a proud moment when you are speaking to friends and family about a product that they know about and being able to say I worked on that. I really enjoy working on the cutting edge of technology.

Do you have any goals for the future?

Each time I just like to find something that I enjoy and carry on going down that path. My goal would be to be a leader in engineering, working on cutting edge technology that’s helping to make decisions to help moving the industry forward.

When you were entering the profession were you aware that it was a male dominated profession and if so did that affect your thoughts on it?

Yes I was aware, you even get an idea from A-Level and University. I noticed the number of females in my class decreasing and when working in teams at university you could see that it was male dominated. However, working in a male dominated profession has never been a negative for me. Things are definitely changing and the profession is more open, it is also great to see there is a willingness to change the balance.

Throughout my studies and career if I have pointed out things regarding inclusivity it has always been supported and encouraged by my other male colleagues. Also, it is great to see my male colleagues coming up with ideas regarding inclusivity themselves.  

There is definitely an increase in the younger female employees joining the company, I have been lucky in the System Engineering team as four out of seven in the team have been female, including two graduate Engineers. There is definitely a change happening, for the better, from a diversity perspective.

What do you think the schools, universities and Engineering companies can do to promote Engineering roles to females?  

I think generally we can try harder to bring an awareness of what an engineer is and that there are female role models out there doing great things in the field of Engineering. Actively doing more STEM based activities would help, I am the STEM co-ordinator at McLaren Applied, which means I actively help to inspire and share my passion with children typically in primary and secondary schools, to take an interest in Science, Technology Engineering and Maths. We attend various events such as the South East Big Bang Fairs, which bring together school children, teachers, STEM employers, STEM Ambassadors and volunteers in a unique festival atmosphere to celebrate all things STEM.

Are McLaren doing anything to actively encourage women into the profession?

We have a women’s network – Driven Women – which supports development, enhances talent and contributes to an environment that embraces diversity and equality ethics. I was on the committee from its inception in 2017 until early 2020 and saw it grow from a few members to the more structured initiative it is today, with members from Applied, Racing and Automotive. Interestingly, despite its name, we also have a number of male members!

Finally, what would your ten-year-old self think of where you are now?

I thinks she would be impressed with some of the projects I have worked on and how I have been able to push technology forward, and the impact this has had. Also surprised at how much I enjoy and thrive from working in a team – my ability to work collaboratively flourished while I was at university. I would be pleased that I tried different things that led me to pursuing a career that I am passionate about.

And to finish, any words of wisdom?

Give things a try and don’t be put off by anything. Whether I wanted to go into a particular area or not I would give it a go and it was great to understand what happens in that area and gain a perspective into the wider industry. I have been able to bring all this wider knowledge and understanding back into my day to day working life and it has been really beneficial.

This article is for general information only. Its content is not a statement of the law on any subject and does not constitute advice. Please contact Reddie & Grose LLP for advice before taking any action in reliance on it.

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