Closing the gap for women in science and water

March 8, 2024
Northern Ireland Water Engineer Karen McDowell shares her experience as a woman in water and her dream to encourage more women to enter the industry.

For nearly four decades, I’ve worked as an engineer to help fix the world. Now it’s time for engineering to help fix itself – and I’m pleased to see some clear signs of improvement. 

The news has been full lately of stories about the continuing shortage of STEM workers in the UK, EU, US, and worldwide. The unfortunate reality is that my profession maintains an unusually large gender gap, with women making up only 28% of the global STEM workforce, including just 24% in the United States, 17% in the European Union, 16% in Japan, and 14% in India.

Only about one of every ten engineers in my home country of Northern Ireland is female.

Those numbers cannot be a big surprise to any woman who has worked in STEM. As a mechanical engineer, I’m used to being the only woman in the room. But the good news is that I have more and more company – my entire four-person team of innovation and efficiency engineers at Northern Ireland Water is now women. The chief executive of my utility is a woman who also is an electrical engineer, and four of nine members of our utility’s executive committee are female. 

To be clear, I’m not a bean-counter when it comes to the numbers of men or women in any workplace. There is no gender-based answer to an engineering problem – there is only a technical solution based on what is strongest, safest, and most efficient for customers.

My own experience is that engineering is an extremely rewarding career. The door for STEM should be open for anyone with the brains, heart, and work ethic for it, not just the people on the time-worn path for it. Professions become less intimidating for young people when they can see themselves – or people like themselves – in the jobs they aspire to. 

Like many women my age, I was guided toward traditional female occupations. At my all-girls school in Northern Ireland, teachers were happy to point the way toward careers in nursing or retail. But I really enjoyed maths and science, and I was good at it.

A childhood helping my dad repair and maintain the family Ford Cortina sparked my interest in mechanical problems. A big plus for me was patience from my parents. When I took apart the family alarm clock – and then could not figure out how to piece it back together again – I was fortunate that my father was an industrial chemist. He knew the importance of trying and failing and learning a lesson from it all. 

What set me on my STEM career path was a structural engineer at a school career day. When we talked, he learned I had grown up as a Lego kid who was inquisitive and loved to tinker with things. He gave me a few words of encouragement, but they went a long way toward boosting my confidence and enthusiasm for STEM. 

The more I advanced in engineering, the fewer women I found as peers. I was the only woman in my engineering and microelectronics class of 70 at Ulster University. When students in class did not volunteer answers, the lecturer seemed to always call on me – it was easiest to remember the name of the sole female. 

At one job interview, I was asked how I would deal with working as the only woman on a night shift with men. I replied: The same way I’d work if the shift were all women. That was one job I did not get.

I did start at a job designing and testing engines, but the biggest growth market for that company was in the Middle East, which was not a welcoming place at that time for a professional working woman. So I moved on. 

One boss at my next job asked why I was not home with my children. (They were not born yet.) I asked if his wife worked a job as well. Turns out she did, but their family situation was different, he explained, though he could not quite explain to me how.

As the only woman engineer in those days, I wanted to join in on more office conversations, so I taught myself about football. One day I came to work and no one was there. Turns out all the men had gone golfing. I took up the sport, and learned to enjoy and curse it as they did. (Well, maybe not as much as they did.) 

Today I feel great pride to work for Northern Ireland Water as we supply 560 million litres (148 million gallons) of clean water a day for almost 1.8 million people while also treating 320 million litres (84.5 million gallons) of wastewater a day. What I love about engineering is that we are always working on new ways to solve problems. Right now we are adopting and integrating world class technology to help detect illegal discharging in our sewers. There is always room for improvement. 

For years I sought out and tried to mentor young women engineers. That worked well when I was the age of their mothers, but now that I am old enough to be the grandmother of some of my colleagues, I do worry about a generational gap.

The workplace has changed so much for women, mostly for the better, since I started. I worked hard to be taken seriously as an engineer. I hope the younger women who replace me will be able to work hard as an engineer if they choose, but also to use engineering as a steppingstone to climb to the top and run it all. 

About the Author

Karen McDowell | Engineer for Northern Ireland Water

Karen McDowell has worked since 1986 as an engineer at Northern Ireland Water, most recently as Wastewater Efficiency and Innovation Manager.

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