Women in Tech of the Month is our series exploring the achievements of women who are breaking gender stereotypes to build technology-based careers. This month, in honour of International Day of Women and Girls in Engineering, we’re celebrating Catherine Hildersley from our Mechanical Engineering team. In this interview, we hear more about her role, her career journey so far, and the advice she gives to women looking to enter the industry.
Describe your role and what a typical day would look like for you
I’m a Mechanical Engineer at PA – it’s the broadest of the engineering disciplines. My role is really varied and I’m able to get involved in a wide range of industries and types of projects, each with a unique set of problems to solve.
A ‘typical day’ varies a lot, depending on the type of project I’m working on and which phase it is in the development process. Most projects involve designing, then building prototypes and therefore follow a pattern. In early phases, we’ll typically spend time sketching, brainstorming concepts, and meeting with stakeholders to ensure what we design meets their needs. We might also need site visits to assess existing assets or other inputs to the project. Then it’s generally lots of computer work, researching parts, and making 3D and 2D drawings. Eventually, we build and analyse the prototypes. I love this part, where we see what we’ve been envisioning for so long come to life. Throughout this process, good teamwork and engagement is critical to success, especially on interdisciplinary projects. There are so many different factors and inputs that need to be considered, one person can rarely do it alone.
Ultimately, the focus of my role entails solving problems and making something better. This might be improving the efficiency of a production process, creating a new product to make people smile, or designing a surgical tool to save people’s lives. Regardless of the aim, each project brings continuous opportunities for learning and immense satisfaction when achieving a goal.
What has your career journey been like so far?
Despite always being drawn to problem-solving and having an innate curiosity for how things worked, I was never sure I wanted to be an engineer. I studied Engineering Science at university because I felt it gave me the most options and combined many of the things I loved – art, maths, and science. It was only during an internship at PA that I realised how fun engineering could be. I saw it could involve a lot of travel, exploration, and people skills, alongside making genuinely fun and life-changing stuff.
I joined PA shortly after finishing my degree at the Global Innovation Technology Centre in Cambridge. I spent several years there, working across a wide variety of projects in both product design and process manufacturing engineering. I had some great opportunities to see inside many industries and travel the world alongside this. When PA acquired a design and engineering team in Boston, I was offered the opportunity to help with the initial transition and continued to stay on a permanent basis.
I was drawn to technical consulting for a multitude of reasons. I’ve been able to learn so many different things and solved a wide range of problems. There are very few workplaces that allow for the breadth of opportunity and experience that consulting offers, especially as an engineer. In my field of work, we tend to have so many ‘Eureka’ moments which are satisfying and intellectually rewarding. I also find the interaction between people and technology fascinating, and this is something I often get to understand further in working with different organisations and their employees.
What advice would you give to other women looking to pursue a career in engineering?
I felt I had more difficulty settling into the industry than many of my male peers. I also felt there was a steeper learning curve which was exacerbated by how different my hobbies were growing up. Many of my male counterparts already had significant preliminary knowledge from learning how to build engines or work on cars whereas I had grown up learning different skills like how to bake and dance. As these weren’t seen as interests typically associated with engineers, I could be interpreted as having less passion than my peers in pursuing engineering.
The longer I spend in the industry, the more I realise how harmful that mentality is. Firstly, it made imposter syndrome harder to fight. Not only was I one of very few women, but there were clear examples of how different I was because of my background and experience which led to feelings of being underqualified. This, coupled with how lonely it can be as a minority, makes achieving gender diversity far more difficult. Secondly, my hobbies and experiences, while not directly related to engineering, do have transferable skills that have been useful throughout my career. For example, I’ve worked on several projects where a key element of our success came from knowledge gained through my hobbies, or my unique experiences being the only woman in the team.
Ultimately, we need to find a way to overcome obstacles for women pursuing STEM careers, to improve accessibility by valuing diverse backgrounds. We also need to recognise a better way to identify and encourage engineering mindsets in individuals. One example: as a child, one of my favourite things to do was to make origami boats to sail on a padding pool. Noticing they kept sinking so fast due to water ingress, I precoated the paper with wax crayons so they would survive longer. This is an example of an engineering mindset, but not one that would necessarily be discussed with a career guidance officer or a university admissions tutor. We need to find ways to spot these skills and encourage teenagers to consider the industry, even if they’ve never cared about engines or robots.
When pursuing any career, not just engineering, it’s important to remember that just because you may be a minority, it does not mean you are an anomaly. Focus on pursuing what brings you joy, rather than the ways you’re ‘less qualified’. All experiences and backgrounds bring useful perspectives and skills, especially in consulting and engineering.
This article was written by Hannah McIntosh, a PA digital expert