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International Women in Engineering Day celebrated by Royal Navy female engineers

Women in Engineering
23 June 2017
With the Year of the Engineer just months away and International Women in Engineering Day being celebrated today (Friday 23 June), some of the Royal Navy’s senior female engineers are leading the drive to encourage more women to join them.

Of the 29,500 trained men and women in the Senior Service, a little over one third are engineers - marine or weapon - to keep ships and submarines moving, provide them with electricity, fresh water, ensure communications, sensors and weapons systems are fully functioning... among other duties.

But of those 10,650 engineers, just 572 were women as of October 2016, when the latest statistics were compiled - 134 officers, 438 ratings.

In short, in the realm of Royal Navy engineering, women are outnumbered by their male counterparts 18 to 1.

Taking the lead set by some of the Royal Navy's female engineering ambassadors, however, might tip the balance more favourably.

The highest-ranking female engineer in the Royal Navy is Captain Sharon Malkin, who rebelled against the suggestions of her headteacher at school - she wanted the then teenager to study philosophy, politics and economics at university - and plumped for engineering instead due to her proficiency in maths and physics.

That subsequently led to a (to date) 23-year career in the Royal Navy, chiefly working with carriers and Fleet Air Arm squadrons, but her expertise has been called upon in the design of HMS Queen Elizabeth and her F-35 jump jets, investigated structural failures, provided expert advice on the Royal Navy's air engineering policy and is currently at the tip of the technology spear with the Navy's innovation team and the almost mind-boggling potential of robotics, artificial intelligence and nano/biotechnology.

"There are so many opportunities as an engineer in the Royal Navy," she says. "You can work with aircraft, ships, submarines, complex integrated mission systems, data analytics, offensive and defensive cyber defence systems, complex propulsion systems and new weapons systems.

"There is a need for both very practical, hands-on engineers and those who can apply their engineering principles in design, support and capability development. Engineering underpins everything the Royal Navy does."

There are so many opportunities as an engineer in the Royal Navy. You can work with aircraft, ships, submarines, complex integrated mission systems, data analytics, offensive and defensive cyber defence systems, complex propulsion systems and new weapons systems

Captain Sharon Malkin Royal Navy

Air engineering mechanic Chief Petty Officer Nicola Howse joined the Royal Navy back in 1998 as a 17-year-old and spent the bulk of her first dozen years working with Sea and then GR7/9 Harriers

When the jump jet's career ended, Nicola switched to helicopters; maintaining Apache gunships on two tours of duty in Afghanistan and nearly three years back at Royal Navy engineering's alma mater, HMS Sultan, to pass on her knowledge as an instructor.

Most recently she's joined 1710 Naval Air Squadron, the specialist helicopter repair/design modification unit based in Portsmouth.

"I chose engineering because I was always better at maths and sciences at school than humanity subjects and I wanted a career that would suit me.

"I enjoy the variety that comes with my job. Every day has the potential to be different when working on aircraft as every fault is different.

"It's a great career choice - although it is hard work, it is challenging and rewarding. There are multiple opportunities to train and work on state-of-the-art equipment and gain useful engineering qualifications and practical experience."

It's not all about air engineering, of course. Lieutenant Commander Jenna Kelway ensures HMS Somerset keeps powering along as she oversees the Type 23's marine engineering department.

She chose life as an engineer over other options because she was interested in how/why things work.... and "being brutally honest, back in the early 2000s - and it still remains the case - is that I knew that the engineering sector offered more secure and often better-paid careers than other areas."

There is more to the job than money, naturally.

"A distinct sense of pride comes with the knowledge that every day everything we do as a department is key to the smooth running of the ship - after all if our kit doesn't work we can't go to sea!" Jenna explained.

"I feel an immense sense of satisfaction when standing on the flight deck, looking back at our wake knowing the team I lead are responsible for ensuring that a 4,500-tonne warship can power through the sea at 28 knots.

"I know that the hard work and often long hours put in by the team results in Somerset being able to deliver tasking of national importance."

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