Dr Lucy Rogers: They told me ‘women aren’t engineers’

23rd April 2018

Sarah Rees headshot

Sarah Rees

“To be honest, I do resent that I’ve had to be an ambassador for my gender,” comments Dr Lucy Rogers with a half-smile. “I just want to do my job”. And she’s earned the right to be a little bit weary, having represented women in engineering since Uni when she was used as the poster girl to promote its engineering courses. “But,” she says, “I do realise that people can’t be what they can’t see.”

Lucy is one of the most visible and vocal female engineers of the UK industry, brimming with enthusiasm at spending each day doing what she has always felt was her hobby. She is a wonderful advertisement for the diversity of opportunities within engineering and how much pleasure it can provide those who enjoy the simple act of making.

Her CV lists a fantastic array of projects, from judging Robot Wars to creating bespoke technical solutions to problems. Recent assignments include 3D printing mini mannequins for a dressmaker’s marketing campaign and helping a theme park with their dinosaur animatronics.  “I’m just a maker,” she admits, “I’ve always been a maker.”

She openly recognises that the journey to engineering is hard for youngsters who lack the understanding of the roles available for their interests. It is also a challenge for those with neither family nor school encouragement for such a career. “I didn’t have to break any barriers,” she says. “My grandfather was a clock maker, my dad was a carpenter and my mum was into spinning, knitting and weaving. Making was just what we all did.”

That said, it took a school teacher to recognise her talent and put a name to it, nudging her towards engineering open days to help her make her choice for University. She gained a mechanical engineering degree as a Rolls Royce sponsored student, and then became a doctor via a PhD in Fluid Dynamics (or ‘making bubbles’ as she exuberantly describes it). She is now a Chartered Engineer and a Fellow of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, as well as the founder of the Guild of Makers, and she sparkles with idiosyncrasy. She spray-paints her boots gold, “and I’m always the one at a formal event in a bright red jacket and jeans” she laughs. “I’m not interested in conforming!”

Currently enjoying being self-employed and taking on projects for pleasure, she admits that “it’s been hard work to get here. It’s only in the last five years that I’ve finally started doing what I wanted to when I was 16 or 17.”

The journey involved jobs that were well paid but perhaps a little dull, and she freely admits that sexism and discrimination have been themes of her professional life. “I went to an all-girls school, so doing physics A-level wasn’t a surprising thing. It wasn’t until I was in industry that I discovered sexism.”

Some of it was casual, but there were instances that seriously damaged the enthusiasm of the eager graduate. “I was 20 by the time I experienced sexism, so I didn’t know how to deal with it. It was such a shock to me.” She still seems riled, almost two decades later, from being excluded from a Christmas works do after being told by a senior engineer at work that “I couldn’t go … because, as far as he was concerned, women couldn’t be engineers.”

She found she was increasingly given the less exciting projects while her fellow – male – engineers had the more interesting tasks to work on. “I just left,” she admits. “I went to do something else. If I see it now, I call it out, but back then I was young. I was just a graduate and these were people in authority; they had the power.”

Discrimination has been fostered by a lack of females in her field – and wider across STEM – which Lucy believes is due to deep-rooted cultural norms and expectations. “It’s cultural,” she says. “It’s social conditioning. We all do it, sometimes without realising. Even the way we speak to babies is gender specific, and little girls are bossy while boys are brave. Then boys are given Lego while girls are given dolls.”

She continues, “I was lucky – I had an older brother. I used his Lego, and we used to throw my doll out of the window wearing a home-made parachute!” Her brother Ben went into teaching physics and became passionate about encouraging children to be comfortable with science and scientific terms from a young age, removing another blocker to STEM higher education and beyond.

“By the time kids get to secondary school, most haven’t heard technical terms like ‘hypothesis’ and things, so science seems too hard and confusing and they quit,” Lucy explains. “He wants to encourage scientific literacy while they are young. Now he trains teachers.”

It seems that both the Rogers children have stumbled into working to the same end: making STEM accessible to more, regardless of gender, and supporting the move towards a more diverse workforce. It was this purpose that brought Lucy into Nominet’s sphere, joining with our COO Eleanor Bradley to lead a Tech Talent Charter event to help SMEs understand how they can make their own businesses more diverse.

“I don’t care if they’re green, blue, male, female or whatever, we need more people in tech because tech is the future,” Lucy explains urgently. “If we have more people, we have more brains and more ideas and we can get greater stuff done. It’s all about making our lives better, and people who look at things differently help. Otherwise, if you all do things the same way at the same time, you’ll always get what you had.”

Diversity will fuel the development of the technology industry and Lucy is excited about the way digital innovations will continue to improve industry. “Technology certainly makes my life easier – there’s a lot of stuff I can do now that I couldn’t have done 20 years ago because the tech is cheaper and easier to use. For instance, I can do 3D printing rather than carving things out of wood. It saves me time. I don’t have to do everything myself anymore.”

On the current concerns over job losses associated with automation, Lucy is optimistic. “I think we could easily have a situation in which humans have more free time to do the creative things, and all the dull, dirty and dangerous jobs are done by robots. I hope that’s the way it’s going to go!”

But, she reiterates, “we need more engineers to come in and programme the robots in the way we want them. That’s why I want to stand out. If everyone can see what engineering is, and all the cool things you can do as an engineer, we can attract more people in to join us. And who wouldn’t want a job like mine?”

Read more about Dr Lucy Rogers and her work on her website.