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VHR Interviews Yoge Patel

  • by: Aimee Treasure
  • On: 6, Mar 2020
5 min read

As we celebrate International Women’s Day, VHR interviews leading female Engineer and CEO of Blue Bear Systems Research and CASSIMA, Dr Yoge Patel. Patel reveals how she embarked on a successful Engineering career, why she thinks that women represent only 12% of the UK’s Engineering workforce, and how business leaders can engage the next generation of diverse talent.

Tell Us About Your Career History

‘I never had a grand plan to become an Engineer. I knew by the age of 9 that I loved maths and problem-solving; I enjoyed Academic work and was good at it, but I didn’t really know what I wanted to do or what options were open to me. Engineering as a career never even entered my head until I had finished my Academic studies.

My sixth form tutor advised me against taking maths as “the only option is a career in accountancy” (he was wrong – maths is incredibly helpful in all areas of day-to-day life, as well as in an Engineering career!) so I took up computing instead. After my first degree in Electronics and Systems Engineering at Loughborough University, I naturally went into PhD having been inspired by my uncle, who had studied Aerospace Maths at Cranfield University and always encouraged me to take Academia further. I am a firm believer in the power of mentors raising awareness of career options and providing the catalyst for curious minds – getting ideas into the minds of young people and encouraging them to explore those ideas can set the stage for an amazing career path.

My Aerospace PhD at York University set in place my Aerospace & Engineering career. Specialising in Aerospace made full use of my love of maths, and I felt like I had finally found the opportunity to understand maths and make the best use of my skills. I had a great Academic career, but my desire to create something tangible eventually drove me to the next stage of my career.

I was headhunted by QinetiQ and enjoyed 10 years of fantastic opportunities, from running a variety of research and development programmes across the UK and US, to leading teams and collaborating internally, to pushing further into going beyond processes and Research and Development to create something entirely new.

My latest role has been creating and building Blue Bear Systems Research. We provide innovative design and development across avionics, unmanned and mission systems, sensor payloads and data exploitation. Blue Bear was born out of a desire to apply blue sky thinking to test, build, evaluate and fly. We started with an idea and I am proud to say that we’re now world leaders.’

What Are Your Experiences as a Woman In Engineering – Have You Experienced Sexism, Discrimination or Career Obstacles?

‘At QinetiQ I didn’t encounter sexism, but if I had stopped to think as a female Asian I might have had reservations about entering into the Aerospace industry. There were quite a few times where I was in the minority or indeed the only woman or person from an ethnic minority background, and there was one occasion where I encountered some very old-fashioned viewpoints, but my manager was amazing and I was always supported and encouraged.

When I was younger, ageism almost prevented me from progressing in my career. I applied for a promotion at age 32 and was put forward by my supervisor – the head of the department immediately told me I was too young, regardless of my skills and experience, and assumed that I wasn’t ready to decide the direction of my career. I knew exactly what I wanted to be and do: although my first application was rejected at the first hurdle, I applied the next year and achieved the promotion.

My hardworking and curious nature has helped me to persevere. Many engineers work extremely hard, but I do believe women have to work harder to achieve recognition and success. Women are often equipped with better ‘soft’ skills like communication, empathy and management abilities because of the differences in how boys and girls are brought up in our society, yet women in senior roles that require these leadership skills are usually underrepresented.’

 

Why Do You Think There are So Few Women Working in the Engineering Sector?

‘There are so few people of diverse backgrounds in Engineering full stop – the rate of women in Engineering hasn’t increased in the past 30 years, and despite Black and Minority Ethnic (BAME) students representing one quarter of graduate Engineers, only 6% of Engineers are BAME – and I think it’s due to a combination of factors. There are very few women and people of ethnic minority backgrounds in senior positions, causing a lack of role models for more junior talent.

Unconscious bias creeps into all aspects of recruitment and training, from names on CVs influencing the probability of getting a job interview, to being seen as ‘different’ or ‘other’ in the workplace and excluded from important meetings or networking events, to inaccurate judgements of current ability and potential when making assessments for promotion. Bias makes it harder for women and diverse groups to get into the sector and to achieve career progress when they get there, creating a vicious cycle.

The perception of the industry is often inaccurate amongst education bodies and the general public. Although manual, hands-on work is incredibly important, Engineering has a vast array of careers that simply aren’t recognised, talked about or promoted in the media and in schools. We need to change traditional, old-fashioned and inaccurate perceptions of the industry in order to appeal to those who worry Engineering isn’t for them.’

What Do You Think Businesses and Education Bodies Need to Do to Encourage More Women and Diverse Groups into Engineering?

‘We need to take on responsibility for introducing the sector and its opportunities to potential talent. I have sat on many computer science boards for businesses and universities, and in my experience, most schools and colleges have outdated perceptions of technical career paths, which usually means students are bored and unimpressed with what they hear. Children need to be challenged with exciting scientific projects like coding before they reach the teenage years to connect them with the industry. I can’t see how we can build the next generation of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) talent, and achieve our goal of becoming leaders in Artificial Intelligence (AI), with our current education practices. Some schools want to help their students but don’t have the capacity or the knowledge – I think that the government could be investing more to reward schools that encourage children into STEM.

Diverse business leaders and Engineers can make a huge difference by going into schools, colleges and Universities and using themselves as role models. If young girls and children from diverse backgrounds see people who look like them achieving great success, they will realise that these opportunities are also open to them. Young people need to know that Engineering isn’t just the old-fashioned stereotype of white men in overalls – anyone of any background can work at all levels of design and manufacturing, because hard work, aptitude and skills are more important than personal characteristics.

The technical skills gap is growing ever more urgent – the sector needs to recruit, train and develop 1.8 million new Engineers by 2025 – and companies will have to widen their talent pools to attract this talent, starting with Apprenticeships.

We’re engaging with Academic bodies to create next generation robotics talent. We already have a diverse team and are age-agnostic: we want to engage with schools but would really welcome a government initiative for engaging and building robotics skills in young people.

I will consider Blue Bear successful when we have a successful Apprenticeship programme. We will take good talent wherever we find it. We want to build a company that respects everybody, regardless of skills or experience level. As a nation, the UK is brilliant at Engineering, as our history proves – we just need to change the way it’s packaged as a career and employment opportunity.’ 

 

Yoge Patel is the CEO of Blue Bear Systems Research and CASSIMA.

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