Dawn Elson is the first woman to head the engineering department at Gatwick Airport, the UK’s second largest airport. A keen promoter of STEM subjects among women, she spoke to EngineeringBecause about being female in a male-dominated industry.
“I spoke to a female Army officer at a careers fair, she was a helicopter engineering officer,” Dawn says, recalling the first person who inspired her to begin an engineering course.
“She was dynamic and enthusiastic about her job and had me hooked when she told me that she didn’t actually fix anything, but managed teams of technicians that did. It sounded like the perfect job for me.”
For 23 years Dawn served in the Royal Air Force. She describes the experience as challenging and sometimes incredibly frustrating and dis-heartening.
“I had to work twice as hard as the guys to get even half of the credit one day, and then would be selected for a particular job just because I was a girl and it looked good the next day,” she says. “I think we should all just compete on a level playing field.”
She says the transition from military to civilian life was the greatest challenge of her career.
“It was difficult because I made the choice to leave the military – I was impatient for progression and it was evident that I would not get that in the RAF, due to the downsizing,” Dawn explains.
“So, I gambled my entire future on my ability to cope with a change of engineering perspective, a change of business culture, a geographical move and a move into an industry I had no experience in. It was very scary and stressful.”
Last year she became the first female head of engineering at Gatwick Airport. “I do feel very fortunate but it can be a double edged sword – I work extremely hard to prove every day that I was the right choice,” she says.
One of the most influential female engineers in the UK, she is a role model for young girls who want to take on engineering.
“It is a sad reality that the percentage of girls choosing engineering and other STEM-related professions hasn’t changed significantly since I started my engineering career in the early 90’s,” Dawn says. “It is still stuck below 10%, which is shocking really.”
She adds: “I wish that gender stereotypes were not still relevant today – but they are. I feel sure that if we get the message out there and girls realise just how diverse and interesting careers rooted in STEM subjects can be then we could shift that dynamic, and banish the gender stereotypes to history.”
According to Dawn, showing people that there are a variety of engineering jobs is the best method to inspire a young generation.
“There are so many choices that kids simply don’t get to see or understand – we need to advertise better to improve understanding, and get role models to explain what they do and how interesting it is,” she says.
She has some advice. “Talk to anyone and everyone about the choices you can make – theoretical, managerial or practical? Apprenticeship or degree?
“Ask loads of questions until you find what you want.”