Interview

A tale of two eras 

For more than a hundred years, one global engineering company (formally CA Parsons and now Siemens) has been at the forefront of gender equality. Here, we take a look at the stories of two female engineers, past and present

Encouraging women into engineering remains an ongoing challenge for a number of organisations, with recent statistics showing that only 9 per cent of the UK engineering workforce is female.

It is an issue that’s being tackled head-on by Siemens Power Generation Services in Newcastle, which from wartime Britain to the present day, have been supporting and encouraging women into engineering roles and empowering them to make a difference.

Ruth Baldasera is one of two women working within the quality engineering team at Siemens, and has been a key member of the department for over five years.

She is responsible for carrying out annual audits and ensuring the business has the correct processes and procedures to deliver quality services for energy customers, as well as managing corrective and preventive actions for non-conformances, and supervising customer queries and improvement projects.

With more than 720 procedures to oversee, Ruth is also responsible for ensuring correct process specifications and technical instructions are in place to help employees effectively fulfil their roles.

The legacy of female engineers at Siemens, however, began decades before, in the early 1900s. The business, which still remains on Shields Road in Byker, was known as CA Parsons at that time, having been founded by Charles Parsons in 1889.

In 1913, Charles’ only son, Algernon, was appointed company director. But when war broke in 1914, Algernon was soon conscripted, so Charles appointed his daughter, Rachel Parsons, as temporary director of the business; a radical decision to make at the time.

Inspired at an early age by her father’s ingenuity and invention, Rachel Parsons enrolled at Newnham College at the University of Cambridge, where she was one of the first three women to study mechanical services. Like all women until 1948, she could not graduate with a degree or become a full member of the university. Nevertheless, she was able to add theoretical knowledge to the practical skills she had already obtained at her father’s factory.

During the First World War more than 800,000 women in the UK, replaced men within engineering based roles, reflecting a much larger increase of female employees, than in any other trade or profession, showing that no task was too big or too small, despite gender difference.

Given her experience, Rachel was employed by the Ministry of Munitions during the war to train thousands of women at CA Parsons, and across the North East, in a range of mechanical tasks from making periscopes and view-finders, assembling aircraft parts, to installing electrical wiring on battleships. Others were involved in physically demanding aspects of shell production, including working hydraulic presses, guiding huge overhead cranes, and in the former years, making steam turbines for electricity generation.

Sadly after the war the ‘restoration of pre-war practices act’ introduced in 1919, meant women were forced to give up their roles; this included Rachel.

Undeterred, she continued to be a pioneer for women’s employment rights, launching Britain’s Women’s Engineering Society, an organisation that still exists today, empowering females in the sector to develop and thrive. She also became a member of The Royal Institution of Great Britain in 1918, an organisation devoted to scientific education and research.

Like Rachel, Ruth also considers her role to have a much wider remit than that of the workplace. As a STEM ambassador, she plays an active role in the community. She volunteers her time, enthusiasm and experience to visit local schools in the North East to encourage and inspire girls to pursue science, technology, engineering and mathematics subjects.

Ruth reflects: “Often girls aren’t aware of engineering being a feasible career option, with so many being encouraged into more stereotypical female roles. Instead of talking about power stations, I try and make engineering relatable, by demonstrating its context in every- day life. Take hair straighteners, for example, the way they heat, shape and mould the hair using metal, is engineering in practice. I use this example and joke telling the girls that they are engineers already, and didn’t even know it!”

As well as being a STEM ambassador, Ruth also supports the well-established Siemens apprenticeship programme, where recruits spend two weeks gaining work experience within the quality engineering department. A heavily subscribed and respected programme, the scheme still sees a significant imbalance, with 95 per cent of applications coming from males. While progress is being made, it demonstrates that more has to be done.

Ruth adds: “So much has changed to support the role of women in engineering roles, but more has to be done. There is still a notable imbalance in those taking on [engineering] roles. The media, parents, and the education system, all have to a part to play in showing girls what is possible, and demonstrate to them what a rewarding and fulfilling career this sector can be.”

Siemens 
For more information on engineering roles at Siemens visit www.siemens.com

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