A burning passion

A burning passion; celebrating International Women in Engineering Day in the company of two women combustion engineers

23rd June marks International Women in Engineering Day. In the UK, women make up just 14.5% of all engineers even with an increase of just over 25% since 2016. Here, two of Babcock Wanson’s leading engineers – both women – reflect on why this is and how more women could be encouraged into engineering.

Delphine Morel-Chevillet is Babcock Wanson’s Burners Product Line Manager in France and Cecilia Sebastiani is the company’s Product Technology & Innovation Manager in Italy. Delphine has worked at Babcock Wanson for 13 years, whilst Cecilia is a relative newcomer, having joined the company in late 2018. Both women have – and continue to be – at the forefront in the development of technologies to advance industrial combustion to accommodate new fuel types and reduce environmental impact.

With women so under-represented in industrial engineering, how did Delphine and Cecilia find their way into this sector?

“When I was at school, I didn't really know what I wanted to do, but I chose engineering because of the technical challenges and continuous improvement you can make” states Delphine. “I wanted to work in innovation, research, development from the beginning.  At the end of engineering school, I discovered fire. And I fell in love with fire! And I still learn every day because it’s a huge subject.”

Cecilia originally trained as an aeronautical engineer in Italy, with high ambitions: “I studied engineering to become the aerodynamic engineer of Ferrari for Formula One! I totally fell in love with the space launchers and combustion. So, I made my specialisation in space propulsion and combustion because I’m really passionate about fire. Actually, I'm passionate about some boilers! But boilers, steam, fire are just amazing. It's music and I love it.

“Engineering is a good profession for anyone, including women. Some people see an engineer as just a schematic person, defined by numbers. However, physics is something that is terrifically creative, and mathematics is a language and you can express what you want; it's the most amazing thing in the world.”

With such passion about their occupation, both are disappointed to still see so few women in engineering. “When I was at engineering school, I was the only girl in my class” states Delphine. “Even now, I don't have any women working with me.”

“The problem is that if you have no women applicants, because they don’t study engineering at university, you cannot hire women engineers” responds Cecilia. “25% of engineers in Babcock Wanson in Italy are women. The average in Italy is less than 20%. So, we are above the average. But women engineers are mostly to be found in civil engineering rather than the industrial sector. It's not the companies who are to blame for the lack of women engineers. Babcock Wanson hires people based on their abilities and commitment. We are not chosen because we are a man or a woman. We are chosen because we are a good engineer.”

So, does the problem lie in the education system?

“Our schools need to put engineering as a real choice for girls and communicate more, explain the different types of engineering jobs and why they are exciting” says Delphine. “Many women who are good at maths and physics go into more caregiving roles, such as teachers. That’s a good career, but probably a lot of these maths and physics teachers could also have been great engineers if they were given the encouragement and opportunity.”

“I don't really understand why there is not more women in engineering because it’s a fascinating job,” Cecilia laments. “It’s a cultural thing, actually. You know, we grow up thinking that women just have to take care giving jobs. All the engineering toys are made for male kids. I have a five year old daughter. She has a mum engineer and a dad engineer. For her, engineering doesn't feel like it’s a man’s job or female’s job. But this is an exception.”

Cecilia is also keen to point out that women are still expected to be the primary care givers at home, which makes for an imbalance: “If you read about the gender gap, it says women are working five hours more than men outside from the job. And that's just unfair because the familiar loads, every load, must be shared. In my family, because my husband is an engineer like me, we work together and he knows what I'm doing at work and we share the family load 50/50. I'm grateful to him because I know that culturally in society he's doing something extraordinary, but we have equal rights and this division of responsibilities is just as it should be. We need to help girls to understand their rights and that they have the right to find a job that can complete themselves, whatever that job is. Finding a job you love is important. So, I would advise any young woman to follow your passion and stand up for your rights!”

Delphine is keen to point out that some of the reluctance to seek a career in engineering is based on out dated misconceptions, rather than grounded in reality: “I've been in this world full of men for more than 20 years now but it’s important for me to say that I've never met any problem, never experienced a lack of respect because I’m a woman. Engineering companies and the people who work in them are ready to have a woman as a colleague, as a manager. Just be good at your job and you will be listened to.”