Ann Dowling - interview: ‘Engineering should be central to society’

She knows that education – particularly getting girls interested in physics – is key to making it happen

It’s typical. Just as Dame Ann Dowling’s career has climbed to a new altitude, the head of engineering at Cambridge University has been grounded in her leisure time. She flew single-prop light aircraft for 20 years but gave up a while back because she was simply too busy. “You can fly a minimal number of hours per year, but you end up just doing local trips, and it’s not very exciting,” she said. “You have to put enough time into it to get the fun out of it.”

Dowling’s latest role will keep her out of the pilot’s seat a little longer. She has just become president of the Royal Academy of Engineering, the first woman to do so. A prominent part of the job for this world-renowned aviation acoustics expert will be to address why so many girls turn a deaf ear to the profession.

Under her predecessor, Sir John Parker, the academy contributed to engineering’s renaissance in the public consciousness. In the wake of the banking crisis, there was a realisation that the sector mattered because of the high-value jobs and exports it created. Dowling believes there is more promotion to do, as well as fostering better skills.

“What I’d really like to achieve is to make engineering central to society,” she said. “That’s what I think the job is all about.” Far from simple metal bashing, modern engineering nous feeds into securing the nation’s future energy supply and tackling problems that arise from an ageing population.

If Dowling’s career has been driven by careful analysis of data, she can be cheered by the record number of students that have been accepted on to Stem courses – science, technology, engineering and mathematics – at university.

It means the industry still has aspirations to double the number of engineering graduates by 2020 to feed demand. – “one of the biggest limiters on what UK businesses can do is actually getting the people that they need” – yet only 12 per cent of engineering graduates are female, a ratio that hasn’t really moved for a decade.

Two things are required to keep degree-level interest up: making sure children don’t give up science and maths too early in their education, and addressing the quality of physics teaching in schools. Only 30 per cent of physics teachers have a degree in the subject, so it’s no wonder that industry bodies are flooding school staff rooms with advice packs in an attempt to help out.

“Teachers should be giving kids a hook into developing their career and that is something the academy has been trying to help with.” Dowling said. “There are too few young girls taking physics A-level and of those that do they are more likely not to choose engineering. That is the bottleneck.” In addition, there is the issue of why physics proves more popular with girls in girls-only schools.

“It is certainly very true that in single-sex schools girls don’t feel inhibited in taking physics. The statistics in mixed state schools are quite shocking: something like half of them are not returning a single girl for A-level physics. Under those circumstances it is quite hard to be the only one. So really we need to change that culture.”

Dowling, whose father was a major in the Royal Engineers, was dismantling things from an early age. Her parents fed her curiosity, giving her a chemistry set one year, a magnetism kit the next.

“I have always been interested in how things work,” she says. “I was probably just aware of things around me. Like everyone I had quite an inspirational science teacher when I was nine or 10. He used to bring everyday gadgets into a lesson. There seemed to be one session a week where he would explain how some of the physics we had been doing went into something. Things like that stick in your mind, they help you think and keep your eyes open to what is going on around you.”

Dowling’s fascination with acoustics goes back to a summer job at the Royal Aircraft establishment in Hampshire and her PhD professor, who led the noise-reduction research for Concorde. She has since led the Silent Aircraft Initiative, a collaboration between researchers in Cambridge and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and is now exploring whether that science can be applied on the domestic front, quietening office fans and hand driers in partnership with Dyson.

Dowling became the first female professor of engineering at Cambridge, and four years ago added head of department too. She can also keep tabs on what is going on in Whitehall as she is also a non-executive director at the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills.

She concedes she was entering a man’s world when she began her career, but it dawned on her gradually. “My first degree was in maths and there were a reasonable number of women doing that; during my PhD in engineering, there were still other women around.” Now in meetings, she can be the only one.

“It almost came as a surprise. That sounds daft doesn’t it? I guess I don’t really just define myself as being a woman. All I’ve tried to do is the things that really interest me.”

The CV

Career

Educated at Ursuline Convent School, Westgate-on-Sea, Kent. PhD from Girton College, Cambridge in 1978.

Made professor of engineering in 1998 and head of engineering department in 2010. Has held visiting posts at MIT and Caltech in the United States.

Listed as one of the most powerful women in the UK by Woman’s Hour last year and is president of the Royal Academy of Engineering for the next five years.

Non-executive director of BP and non-executive board member of the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills.

Personal life

Married to Tom Hynes, the director of the Whittle Laboratory, part of Cambridge University’s engineering department. No children. Relaxes with country walks, gardening, opera.

Career advice “I’ve let my career just evolve, really. I think my advice to someone else would be that although it is good to have a plan, you shouldn’t follow it too carefully because things you wouldn’t even think of will come along and they will be great.

“I think the more young girls see women succeeding in engineering careers, it is just impossible for them to think, ‘That is not a career for me.’”

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