Role model: Philippa Oldham - Mechanical engineer

22 September 2017

Whether you’re still in education or a few rungs up the career ladder, we could all do with inspiration to show us what is achievable and to gain an insight into what others are doing in the field of design and engineering. This month our role model is Philippa Oldham who will be sharing some of her career highs, views on diversity in the engineering workforce and providing career advice to school students

A love of motorsport saw Philippa Oldham apply for several work experience roles at motorsport engineering companies whilst still at school. One of these included Ilmor Engineering, which at the time made the F1 engines for McLaren and Indy engines for Penske. She then went on to complete a masters degree in Mechanical Engineering at the University of Birmingham. Upon graduation she landed a design engineer role at the security and defence company QinetiQ.

During her time at QinetiQ she progressed up the career ladder to become a project engineer and then a product manager for the company’s £150M aerospace business.

In 2011, she took up the role of head of transport and manufacturing at the Institution of Mechanical Engineers (IMeche) where she works to raise the profile of engineers.

What do you most enjoy about your job?
As an engineer my current role is an unusual one but I believe it has a real impact. My time is split between talking to our members to make sure that their concerns are being raised, championing their solutions and working alongside the media and governmental departments providing engineering insight. It is important to me that engineering is seen as a profession that can change the way society lives and I am an advocate of making sure both the current and next generation know this.

What inspired you to become an engineer?
As far back as I can remember my parents had to keep an eye on me because I was forever taking things apart trying to figure out how they worked. They were the ones that actually suggested I pursue engineering as they understood it required a mind that was both inquisitive and enjoyed problem solving.

What has been a career high or most memorable work moment?
There are a few. The first was during my work experience at Ilmor where I was working on an engine distortion project. This was a five week project and at the end of the period the changes that I had made had improved the performance of the engine.

Whilst at QinetiQ I was project manager for GAJT (an anti-jamming device), which was developed in partnership with NovAtel in Canada. I set clear timings in terms of the design, manufacturing, testing and delivery of the product. This product is now being used by military personnel all over the world.

In my current role, a stand out moment was being interviewed on BBC One during the 2012 Olympics discussing the engineering in sports clothing and equipment as well as the technology being used to support some of the disciplines.

What is your view on diversity in the engineering and design workforce?
Being a female engineer I have had to become resilient to some of the situations I have been exposed to. This has been a common occurrence throughout my career. I have maintained my composure and stuck my heels in. Whether it was early on when I was in project meetings to more recently at roundtable discussions or conferences, I have proved my worth to those who had potentially doubted by credibility, whether that was due to gender or age is unclear.

Over the years I have met many senior female engineers who do not want to put their heads above the parapet to support more women into the profession. Whilst I respect that they may not want to do this, it would demonstrate that female engineers can be found across the profession in all the sectors.

Ultimately, diversity within the engineering profession is very important as engineers design products and services for all of society.

So we need to make sure that the profession represents a cross section, no matter what gender, ethnic origin or disability. We need to encourage more individuals to become engineers so we can break down perceived barriers.

With the advantage of hindsight, what career advice would you give to your younger self?
I am not sure that I would do anything differently, perhaps concentrate more and work harder at school, but career advice I’d offer to other young girls (or boys) who perhaps aren’t sure about what engineering is, is to get some hands-on experience in a sector or industry that excites them. There is no point going to work in an F1 factory if you are not interested in F1 or cars! Ask to move around the business, shadowing designers, production engineers, safety and testing engineers and even those involved in quality control – it will provide an overall view of how an engineering firm works and help to reveal the part of the business that really excites you.

If you were hosting a dinner party who would you invite and why?
There would definitely be two: Madonna because she is a true feminist with a very strong work ethic that has led to great successes in a long career; and then David Attenborough. I would love to hear more about his travels and his views on how engineers can help to save our planet and protect the natural environment. He is someone who has the ability to draw his audience in, making them feel a real connection to the natural world. This is something that I would like to achieve from the engineering perspective.

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