#RaisingProfiles for National Women in Engineering Day 2016 – An Interview with Dawn Ohlson

Women engineer

23rd June 2016 is National Women in Engineering Day, an annual event dedicated to raising awareness of the wonderful work women do in the engineering sector, and promoting increased female participation in the field going forward. The theme for this year’s event is #RaisingProfiles and if there’s anyone in the engineering field that is working hard to do just that it’s Dawn Ohlson. As the UK Director of Systems Engineering for Thales UK, Dawn knows first-hand what it takes for women to reach the top of the engineering game (and as she discusses, it’s far from impossible, but does take some guts and a willingness to say yes!). Having enjoyed a varied and exciting career in Systems Engineering, Dawn is a role model for potential engineers (female and male) everywhere, Last year she was awarded the First Woman Award in engineering, and has achieved a number of accolades throughout her career.

We had the opportunity to chat to Dawn about her experiences, how she got to where she is now, why she believes more women in engineering is so important, and what can be done to help make this a reality.

Q: As the UK Director of Systems Engineering, what does your role entail?

I have overall functional responsibility for systems engineering, which basically means I am responsible for growing the systems engineering capability in Thales UK. This ranges from finding ways to develop individual systems engineers, to plotting the course for the adoption of new Systems Engineering practices. It’s such a varied role it’s hard to say what a typical day is; no two days are ever the same, there are always new projects coming in (usually all at the same time), and I work with each of the business units to understand what issues they are having, and what we can do to resolve these. But there’s so much more to my role, for example I also get involved in the bids process, reviewing bids for the team and making sure they match up reality and expectation.

Q: What was your personal journey to get to this point?

I’ve been working in Thales for 26 years now, and I was really fortunate to be sponsored by them to attend university. What I hadn’t anticipated, however, was that they would only sponsor me if I went to Oxford or Cambridge, which is something that hadn’t even crossed my mind! But in retrospect I actually think it was a good thing as it pushed me further than I would have pushed myself, and I actually did get into Oxford.

After I got my first job, for me it was just a case of saying yes to everything opportunity and volunteering a lot. I feel I’m quite adaptable, a bit of a chameleon, so I am reasonably comfortable taking on a lot of different things. This has meant I’ve had a very mixed bag in terms of what I’ve done, although my ‘never say no’ mentality has meant that I’ve done some things I haven’t necessarily loved, but even those experiences taught me something, so I’m not sorry I did them.

One of the moments that probably had the biggest impact was when I was sent to Valence in France, where I was promised that everyone would speak English – but they didn’t! It meant in order to do my job I had to learn French – quickly; in the end it only took about three months, and I ended staying two years. Once I got back to the UK I established myself working on the technical part of bids, particularly where collaboration with our French colleagues was required. After a 3 month pause to deliver the IET Faraday Lecture, I started working in an HR role supporting the engineering function, and with the support of another colleague set up the Thales graduate programme, which I’m really proud of. A few years later the Head of HR for Thales Group was looking for an engineer who spoke French and had experience in HR, and I was the only candidate (!), which meant I got to spend 6 years working in Headquarters in Paris. I moved back to the UK to take on my current position, which I was delighted to be offered and made all discomfort of the leadership assessments worthwhile.

Q: So is ‘say yes’ the key advice you’d give to young people?

Definitely – say yes to every opportunity, but also be willing to suck up some of the pain when opportunities aren’t exactly what you’d hope they’d be. I think those situations help build resilience so make sure you learn a lesson from them. Personally I was fortunate to be actively asked to get involved with a lot of things, but I think that was because I made it clear from the start that I’d be keen to try new thingsSo making sure people know that, means they will automatically come to you first.

Q: What are some of the most exciting projects you’ve been involved in?

For me I’m really passionate about training and development of engineers, so I would obviously include the Graduate Programme in that but we’ve recently launched a ‘book club’ to help engineers understand the fundamentals of systems engineering; it’s covering the INCOSE (International Council on Systems Engineering) guidebook, but breaking it down into bite-sized learning. It’s a really exciting project and a very different way of supporting the development of our engineers.

Q: As it’s National Women in Engineering Day, what are your views on the current state of Women in Engineering?

The numbers of women in the industry is definitely getting better and I think Thales is doing a lot, but the trouble is we don’t necessarily know what the ‘right’ things are to do, so it’s hard to do them. We have a women’s network in Crawley for example, but for me the goal is to reach a stage where a ‘women’s’ network isn’t needed .I strongly believe that diversity (of all kinds, not just gender) is really important, especially in engineering because you need a range of different perspectives to create something great and everyone can add something unique.

The major issue, I think, is still schools; I’ve got two daughters and they are already learning what ‘boy’s jobs’ are and what ‘boy’s toys’ are sometimes just from their environment, and if they’re already starting to think like that at the age of five, the impact by the time they start to choose their subjects at school and potential career path will be huge. I was in London in Parliament Square recently looking at all the statues of famous figures with my daughter, and she asked ‘where are all the girls mummy?’ and I didn’t know what to say! So I definitely think what we teach children at this age is hugely important.

Q: What was it that inspired you to become an engineer when you were younger?

I really loved the creativity of engineering; I’ve always loved making things including my own clothes, in fact during my university days I’d earn extra money by making ball gowns, so making things has always interested me. But another factor was that my dad worked as an engineer on aircraft, and I was always fascinated watching him, seeing how a pile of ‘stuff’ was turned into an aircraft engine.   I’ve always been very curious, so I think I looked for a career where I could apply these traits, and engineering was a perfect fit.

Q: What advice would you give to women who are interested by the idea of engineering but think it’s too late (e.g. they didn’t study the right subjects or took another career path)?

I’d say it’s never too late! There are so many more options now; with Apprenticeships at Degree and Masters level and the apprenticeship levy about to come into effect, I’d say it’s actually the ideal time for women to start exploring their opportunities. I think apprenticeships are especially valuable in the engineering industry, because you get real life experience as you get qualified, which is vital for engineering. You can still work your way up the qualifications ladder, going from strength to strength, but when you do reach Degree or Masters level you’ll also have a wealth of experience under your belt.

I’d also say that even if you train as an engineer that doesn’t mean you have to work as one necessarily; you can get a role virtually anywhere. The skills and logical thinking you develop when training as an engineer are invaluable to every sector. A lot of the people I studied with at university didn’t go into engineering, many of them went into finance, management services and similar, because you use the same skills, just in a different way. Although when we used to meet up and discuss what we had been up to, I was the only one that could say that they had been belting around in the back of a military helicopter doing low level flight tests. Training as an engineer can really lead you anywhere you want!