Women's Engineering Society - Dawn Bonfield

Materials World magazine
3 Nov 2015

A successful STEM advocate and President of the Women’s Engineering Society, Dawn Bonfield talks to Natalie Daniels about inspiring young people in STEM careers.

EUR ING Dawn Bonfield CEng, FIMMM FICE is the President of the Women’s Engineering Society, working with female engineers, scientists and technologists offering inspiration, support, professional development and advice to those thinking of entering into the profession. She has previously worked as a Materials Engineer for BAE Systems, MBDA and PSA Peugeot Citroën and at IOM3. 

Tell me a bit about your background.

I graduated with a degree in Materials Science from the University of Bath and have been a member of IOM3 since 1982. I am now a Fellow of the Institute and President of the Women’s Engineering Society (WES). I have mainly been involved in composite materials, working for companies including Harwell, Citroën, British Aerospace and MBDA. In 2004, I joined IOM3 as a Conference Producer, in charge of handling the technical one-day conferences and was there for eight years.  

What does your work at the Wes involve? 

My day-to-day role involves running and managing the 96-year old charity, WES. As a membership organisation, it has three main aims – one is to be a network that supports, inspires and encourages women in engineering and celebrates their achievements. Secondly, it supports and boosts education in engineering, so I help run outreach activities for schools. Thirdly, we help companies with their gender diversity to increase the number of women they employ or recruit, and to train and retain them. We also work with companies to help them with a range of outreach activities, and one of the most successful mechanisms for this has been the support that companies have given to National Women in Engineering Day, an initiative developed by me and co-ordinated by WES. 

What advice would you give to young women thinking of entering engineering as a profession?

For any young person thinking of applying for a career in engineering, I would suggest finding out as much as possible about the discipline of engineering you are interested in, and get some specific careers advice about the different routes to achieve this (either vocational routes or through the graduate route). If you are finding it difficult to decide which way to go then a number of courses are more general to start with and then specialise later on, and this might be the best choice. Summer schools, work experience placements, internships, and the year in industry schemes are all fantastic ways to find out more, and there are plenty of organisations like WES that can give advice and have role models available to give you more background information to help you make your choice.

Engineering is a fantastic profession for creating solutions to both local and global issues, and I would really encourage young women considering engineering to be confident in their choice, and to challenge the stereotypes that are sometimes held by teachers or parents that engineering is not for them.

Do you think young women are at a disadvantage when they enter into engineering?

With anything that appears to be gender neutral, boys inherently have a very strong advantage compared to girls and we don’t always recognise that. There is such a history and tradition of stereotyping that has gone on for years, which means that girls don’t always hear a message in the same way that boys do. 

At WES we have got a new mechanism called Sparxx and the idea is that you can have all this fantastic outreach that lights the spark, but unless you do something for a girl that gives the spark the oxygen to survive, then the spark will go out. You need constant contact to offer support and nudge them in the right direction. 

What is the importance of vocational routes into engineering?

I think that the vocational route to qualifications is very interesting for many young people. One of the things we need to ensure in engineering is that there are multiple entry routes to the profession. With the high cost of degrees these days, there will be a lot of students who do not want to start their careers with the debts incurred through attending university, so it is imperative that we have alternative ways into the industry, and routes that allow people to enter in different ways. Conversion courses are also very important in getting greater numbers and increased diversity in engineering – routes don’t need to be linear, and entry routes that allow sideways entry are equally important.

What can the industry do to support STEM courses?

Industry needs to create better links with schools. These links would allow much more support to be offered through, for example, work experience placements, visits, mentoring support, parental engagement, and outreach activities. If every industry engaged with their local school more effectively we would have a much more cohesive system of positively influencing the next generation. The Teacher Industrial Partners’ Scheme is a great mechanism for industry and teachers to get involved with STEM careers. In order to increase diversity industries should ensure that they stipulate 50/50 male to female ratios for their outreach activities, however unpopular or hard the schools find it to achieve, as this is the quickest way to promote gender diversity.

How has your education aided you with your career progression?

My own route into science and engineering at university was heavily influenced by my love of science at school, through attending a couple of engineering summer schools, and by the fact that my father is an engineer. The lack of good careers advice in schools for girls who don’t have access to this home or school support is one of the reasons why girls in particular fail to enter the engineering discipline, and this is something that really needs addressing if we want to get more young people, and more girls in particular, into engineering.