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Diversity in the workplace - an interview with Siemens' Helen Kellaway

We spoke to Helen Kellaway about her role as a Lead Systems Engineer at Siemens Rail Automation and how her journey has been in such as male dominated industry. She talked about how she first developed an interest for engineering, as well giving a few ideas about what can be done to encourage more women to pursue a career in the field.

1. Tell me a little about yourself. What is your current role and how long have you worked for Siemens?

My name is Helen Kellaway and I am a lead systems engineer in the research and development department at Siemens Rail Automation. Basically, my job is to manage all of our system engineering activities for one of the Control Centre products we are developing for metro railways and along with the team ensure that both their function and design meets the correct standards.

I’ve worked here for 20 years back when the company was originally called Westinghouse Brake and Signal Company. We were later purchased by a company called Invensys before eventually being bought out by Siemens around five years ago, so I guess you could say that in all that time I’ve worked for three different companies and only had to do one interview!

2. What has been your career journey so far?

I’ve had quite an unorthodox route into engineering. I left school at 16 and never really knew what I wanted to do, so I took on an admin role at the company and gradually found myself becoming more interested in what they actually did. I started to take on more technical work and luckily throughout my whole career I’ve had excellent managers who encouraged me to pursue my interests.

I felt like I had to prove it to myself and repay their faith in me, so at the age of 22 I went back to college to learn about engineering. I guess you could say I started my academic career a little later than others but after completing my course I went to Warwick University and did a Masters in Systems Engineering which was sponsored by the company.

Once I graduated I came back to the business and my boss at the time said it’s a great opportunity because it was like I was starting again, so I got to choose which area I wanted to work in. I went around each of the departments and learnt what they did before I eventually settled on the role I’m in now, as it felt very structured as well as being an area that was new and exciting to me.

3. What do you love about your job?

It’s one of those places where you never stop learning, so because you don’t know everything you’ll never get bored. Each day is different because there are so many perspectives to understand and opportunities for you to improve yourself: one day you could be working on one thing, while the next you could be working with people from an entirely different department or company - it’s great!

4. Have you faced any barriers being a woman in engineering?

I don’t think I have to be honest. It’s always been about ability and enthusiasm so the only real limitation has been me and my own self-belief, but I wouldn’t say that anybody has put any barriers in my way. If anything, people have opened doors for me.

5. Do you think diversity difference still exist in the workplace?

I imagine it does, but unconsciously. People are all unconsciously bias in some ways because we all come from different backgrounds and have different levels of education, so there’s always going to be some bias. But I think people are more aware now of this bias, so are therefore happy to call stuff like that [discrimination] out and to raise any issues they might notice.

6. Why do you think there is such a shortage of women in STEM?

I think there are a few reasons really, but stereotypes are one of the biggest factors. For instance, if you were to ask a child to draw a picture of a scientist or an engineer they will probably draw a white male in a boiler suit or a white coat which to them might be considered the ‘norm’, so because they might be different from this image they may feel that they don’t relate and it is therefore off limits to them

I also think that there’s a bit of a culture surrounding it in which engineering isn’t seen as lady like; it’s a dirty job so therefore women wouldn’t be interested in it. Obviously this isn’t the case - I haven’t got my hands dirty for years! Sitting in front of a computer all day isn’t dirty work at all. I think engineering is what you want it to be – we need to educate others and show the range of opportunities there are in engineering.

7. Have you seen any changes in recent years in regards to Diversity and Inclusion in the workplace?

At Siemens, definitely; we’re always coming up with initiatives to encourage equality, diversity and inclusion and one of the fun ideas we came up with was “coffee roulette.” Basically, the idea was to try and get you away from the desk and chat to with someone else in the office to learn about what it is they do and who they are.

There’s over 800 people here who work in different departments and have different responsibilities, so you could have people who would never normally meet having discussions, finding out about each other and even sharing ideas and best practice in a fairly informal way.

8. Do you have any advice for women who are interested in a career in engineering?

My advice would be to do your research; go and find out what a job is about, whether that means getting some work experience or an internship so that you can get a better understanding of the job you will be doing. People might not realise that the academia side of things is very different to what you do in real life, so it’s useful to have the experience. It also helps with university and job applications if you have had relevant experience working in a company.

9. Do you know of any initiatives to attract and retain a diverse workforce?

I can only talk from Siemens’ perspective, but we recently had a scheme called Military to Rail which involved getting people who were ex-military and training them up for a roles in Rail Automation. Engineers from the military have learnt the same engineering principles and have transferable skills which are ideal for engineering in the rail industry.

10. What do you think are the benefits of having a more diverse workforce in engineering?

Well if you constantly have the same people developing the same things, they’re not going to be very innovative. The industry will stay the same and there won’t be much change, which isn’t a good thing when you consider the rail network has so many users. New people bring in new ideas and that leads to innovation.