Interview: Katy Deacon, Young Woman Engineer of the Year

Katy Deacon, 27, has been crowned the Young Woman Engineer of the Year. Ana Caistor-Arendar spoke to her
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The Independent Online

What did you study at school?

I did A-levels in maths, physics, chemistry and computing. I was also part of an extra-curricular engineering scheme organised by my college. This took place one evening a week for a year. We worked in a team of four students, with a teacher and an engineer, on a project for reducing heat loss in buildings. We had to model the heat loss of a building and calculate how much was being lost through the windows, doors and roof, and then propose measures to reduce heat loss. It was really good because it got us working with a qualified engineer on a real-life problem for which we had to find a solution.

Was that the first time you realised you wanted to become an engineer?

Yes, it was the first time that I had any experience with what an engineer does. I also realised that engineering is not something I find difficult. For me, writing an essay is really difficult, but thinking through these engineering problems and solutions isn't difficult for me; it comes naturally.

What did you go on to study at university?

I had decided that aeronautical engineering was what I was going to go into because it sounded the most exciting of all the engineering disciplines (hindsight would potentially change my mind about this!). British Airways offered me the chance to study at the same time as taking part in a salaried apprenticeship with them. The apprenticeship helped me a lot because I'm a practical person who understands things by doing and seeing them. It was really hands-on, I got to do things such as take apart engines and put them back together. I also got to do my basic training before going on to do my degree, where we learned all sorts of technical things. It meant that I could properly understand the theory side of my studies because I had witnessed the practical side.

Did you stay with British Airways when you completed your degree?

No, I didn't. The apprenticeship finished when I completed my degree and I decided that I didn't want to work at an airport anymore. I realised that I was at a point in my career where I could move over into another area of engineering quite easily and get another traineeship. So, I started working in Kirklees Council as an assistant electrical engineer. I trained, did my Masters degree, and worked my way up to become an electrical engineer. I work for the same council today, although I'm in a different role now. After working in electricity I decided to move into the energy unit. This includes energy conservation, low carbon building design, and renewable energy work. A lot of my time is spent in project management, making sure the projects I design work and that everything runs smoothly.

Was it difficult for you, especially as a woman, to go into engineering?

I never thought that it was difficult. I never came across anybody who was out to make my life tough just because I was a girl in engineering. I haven't had anything but encouragement. When you are an engineer you are part of a team of people who work together. Whether you are a woman or a man, you share your different skills to create the solution for the client. If you were going to be with somebody who is going to create problems that just means the project will fail, so the majority of people just get on with it. As long as you have got the training and can actually do the work then there's no problem.

Why is it important for women to pursue careers in engineering?

Only about 6 per cent of engineers are women. Engineers are supposed to create solutions (for the public at large), but what those statistics show is that men are creating all the solutions. Having women in engineering is important because it allows a different perspective.

Why do you think there is such a small percentage of women in engineering?

One of the reasons is a lack of vocal female role models in engineering. Also, I don't know what it's like now for school children, but when I was at school, careers advisers would advise young girls to go into teaching and nursing and psychology and that type of thing, and they were advising the boys to go into engineering and heavy industry. I think we need to open up those boundaries and show young people that it is possible to do things other than the stereotypes.

What do you like most about your job?

I love solving problems for people. My passion is saving energy and generating renewable energy. When I first saw the wind turbine system that I had designed up and running, it was the biggest thrill! To be able to see something that you've worked so hard on come to fruition, it makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end. It's wonderful.