Caroline Bull – President of the British Institute of Non-Destructive Testing and Manager in Systems Engineering at AWE, a company that plays a crucial role in the defence and security of the UK. Undeniably a strong role model and inspiration for women within the engineering industry, particularly within the Non-Destructive Testing world. We caught up for a chat about juggling career and home life, the future for women in engineering, and what it’s like to work in an industry with a predominantly male workforce.
1.Hi Caroline, thank you for having a chat with me today. I personally see you as a role model within the industry (*blushes*) and would love to know a bit more about your work to share your story and hopefully inspire others!
You currently work as a Manager in Systems Engineering at AWE, a company that plays a crucial role in the defence and security of the UK, and is at the forefront of the UK’s nuclear deterrent programme. How did you get into a role like that?
Well before moving into my current role, I started working at AWE back in 2002 in the Non-Destructive Evaluation Team researching and developing NDE techniques. Prior to joining AWE, I spent many years working for UKAEA and then AEA Technology in the then National NDT Centre and dividing my time between research and practitioner roles. My grounding in NDT enabled me to take opportunities and develop a range of skills that led me to progress to where I am today!
2.So how did you originally get into the NDT industry?
When I left school I started my A levels, but then I saw a job advert for a job in at Harwell Laboratory (then UKAEA). I thought it looked really interesting and decided to apply expressing an interest in physics and materials on the application form. After my initial training I was allocated to the NDT Team. So I’ve been in the NDT industry since I was 17 years old. When I was working in the labs at Harwell, I received a sponsorship to complete my University degree in physics and maths; which I completed when I was 24 years old.
3.Wow, that sounds so interesting! It does seem like you originally ‘fell’ into NDT?
Yes you could say that. I hadn’t heard of NDT when I was 17, it didn’t seem like it was an industry that was well publicised at the time, which is a real shame because I think that it has so much to offer as a career. I think that NDT is becoming more well-known which is good, particularly now there is the option of undertaking NDT Apprenticeships. However, I feel that there is still some way to go to get more people thinking about NDT as a career option.
4.What aspects of your job do you enjoy and find rewarding?
I loved that challenge that came with working as a practitioner in the field. For example, inspecting a challenging geometry or having to be resourceful if a piece of kit broke down and I enjoyed the challenge of getting it up and running as quickly as possible to get the job done. Working as a researcher in the lab was also very interesting where we delved into the theoretical side of NDT. I worked on the development and application of the time of flight diffraction technique (TOFD) as well as the in area of laser ultrasonics and using ultrasonics to monitor welding. Within both these roles I created opportunities to manage teams and/or projects, which I thoroughly enjoyed. For example, I managed teams on large oil refineries running and reporting back on inspections during plant shutdowns which provided me with the experience for my current role as manager in systems engineering. I learned from these experiences enabling me to lead my team more effectively today. I have a rule that I would never ask someone from my team to do something that I wouldn’t do myself.
5.I like what you said about creating opportunities Caroline – a very good point! Moving on to your role at BINDT. You became President in January 2017. What does your role involve?
I’m involved in leading BINDT and work as a team alongside the CEO, Deputy CEO and Senior Managers at BINDT. I am involved in the decision-making processes within the institute; such as financial decisions, forward planning and strategies. I am also responsible for Chairing BINDT Council and other meetings and attend international conferences and events on behalf of BINDT. I try my best to attend as many events as I can and fit this in around my current work and home schedule. I have been very fortunate that AWE are so supportive with my role at BINDT – they allow a good proportion of my time to be President. They are very flexible, which I am grateful for.
6.What do you enjoy about your role as BINDT President and how does it differ from your role at AWE?
The role is similar to my role at AWE in that I am leading a team, and so I was able to apply my leadership skills when I started my role at BINDT. However, AWE is a large company and a completely different kind of organisation to BINDT, as BINDT is a charity organisation. Therefore, I have had to learn to adapt my skills to learn how to lead a charity and learn how a charity works. The support from the staff at BINDT has been fantastic – there is a real team effort, which I think is so important to get things done.
7.According to statistics, less than 10% of women work in engineering. Do you ever encounter any difficulties working in an industry with a predominantly male workforce?
I think it is still a novelty for a woman to be working in the industry, but from what I have encountered, the men who I have worked with have been very supportive and helpful. In many cases they have seen it as a positive to have the option to ask a women their opinion on work matters, as they value a different opinion. However, I have sometimes encountered pockets of resistance and you sometimes feel like you have to prove yourself and earn respect.
I think it is important to give everyone equal opportunity, such as flexible working, and providing different ways of allowing people to work to take into account family life. For example, I currently work part time (32 hours a week) at AWE and finish earlier on some days to pick up my daughter from school. So I’m still able to pursue my career whilst maintaining a home life – it’s about balance. AWE has been brilliant with providing flexible employment opportunities for both men and women.
8.What do you think the future holds for women in engineering and what improvements do you feel can be made?
I think that there is a great future for women in engineering and in STEM. We should be encouraging the next generation and doing our bit to influence and encourage people to get involved in STEM subjects. I think that there is a case of stereotyping about careers within society – there are unconscious biases – and these can discourage people, particularly younger girls, to get involved in STEM. There shouldn’t be barriers for people wanting to get into STEM, it should be a fair playing field and I believe the way forward is to change our cultural attitudes around this topic. I do think cultural attitudes are changing, but slowly.
I’m very passionate about encouraging more women into engineering, and one of my aims as president at BINDT is to get more people engaged and continue with the development of the Diversity and Inclusion working group.
9.Touching on that Diversity and Inclusion working group, when was the group set up and what sort of things do you discuss?
Well BINDT are committed to creating a more diverse workforce and in October 2014, I had the pleasure of signing the Royal Academy of Engineering Diversity Concordat on behalf of BINDT. The Diversity and Inclusion group grew from this and we began having regular meetings from then on. We are essentially an advisory group, whereby we advise on issues surrounding diversity to BINDT; such as how things should be portrayed in the media and how we can influence other initiatives (e.g. school programmes).
10.Both of your roles at AWE and BINDT are very inspiring for women in engineering. What advice would you give to women, and particularly the future generation, who may be thinking about a career in engineering?
First of all, it is good if they have got to the stage of thinking about a career in engineering!
I am also a great believer in obtaining baseline qualifications, be it through hands-on apprenticeships or other learning and development including degree courses. I think it is really good to have that base knowledge to build on, and having a core subject means that you have a variety of options with the possibility of going into different areas.
My advice is to be in charge of your own career – you are in charge of where you want to go.
Do what you want to do and do not let people put you off pursuing your dream – believe in yourself!
by Amy Schofield
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