A chronic lack of gender diversity in the UK electronics manufacturing sector has long been considered one of the industry’s biggest challenges. However, things may be changing for the better, with data from Engineering UK, estimating that there are now 374,000 more women working in engineering compared to 2010 – an increase of 16.5%.
Katie Howard is an electronic engineering graduate working with the UK-based antenna, mobile satellite and smart city specialist, Novocomms. In this interview she talks about her career to date and what advice she would give to aspiring women engineers.
Q: Could you tell us about your background and how you got into electronic engineering as a career?
A: “I was brought up in rural Cornwall, very much outdoors, on tractors and horses, in fields and beaches. It was idyllic and I am very grateful for that time, but I’ll admit thinking about a career was never my priority. I did okay at school but really dedicated my time to sports. My dad is a trained auto-electrician and I remember ‘helping’ (hindering) him in the workshop. I think this is what inspired my career choice, but I wanted to find a way to merge this with sports.
“By the time I was in my late teens, I’d enrolled in a sports science degree in Noth Wales, however, it soon became apparent that the final year project idea I had, to create a device to analyse the distributed weight of a horses footfall, was not in scope of that department, and was far more aligned to the Electronic Engineering degree.
“I remember arranging a meeting with the Dean of Engineering at the university to understand the feasibility of switching degrees. I knew I didn’t have the correct A-levels and I remember he was quite concerned about my ability to keep up, so negotiated a condition of my transfer – I should enrol in a few additional modules/ classes to catch up on what I missed during A-levels. The big lesson here? If you really want to achieve something in your career, don’t be put off if on paper you’re not the ideal candidate or if the path to success is difficult. Be tenacious and stay true to the courage of your convictions. I often wonder what I’d be doing now if I had not kept pushing my case back then. I knew it was the right decision for me and I negotiated hard!”
Q: So, having made the leap into electronic engineering, how did it go?
A: “I’ll not lie, at first it was tough. I had to put in the extra hours to catch up with the other students, but after a few months, I started to really hit my stride. I was lucky to have made some great friends to study with and we all supported each other. I arranged to study under the Erasmus Scheme in Denmark for a year, which gave me some really valuable experience and I found I had a real interest in both Photonics and RF.
“I was subsequently sponsored to complete my masters degree in RF Microwave engineering, which is what I’ve ended up focusing on here at Novocomms, who are based in Birmingham UK. Between graduating and joining Novocomms, I completed my graduate scheme with Collins Aerospace and spent a number of years travelling the world visiting customers and attending industry events. I met many great people during this time, developed key skills and gained more and more confidence. Novocomms is an exciting change for me, I can see even from the short time I’ve been here that there is huge growth potential, and a really friendly but dedicated team.
Q: You’ve previously worked in the aerospace engineering sector. How is it different working for a fast-growing start-up like Novocomms?
A: “Working within a big corporation was great for my first role straight from uni. There was always someone to ask questions, and lots of support to facilitate development but, while you often get to work on prestigious projects, you’re usually a very small cog in a much larger machine! I spent five great years within aerospace, but by March of 2023, it was definitely time for me to move on.
“Now I am enjoying getting my feet under the table at Novocomms, which is a spin out from Birmingham University and has strong links to the city. We’re focusing in three prime areas – sub-6GHz products, mmWave & mobile satellite antennas and smart city projects – all of which hold exciting opportunities in emerging markets both in Europe and further afield.
“Being a SME, my role at Novocomms is very varied, which took some getting used to after the more formal structure of a large Aerospace corporation. Within one week I could be liaising closely with a client on the delivery of a new antenna technology, attending an event for the space sector, prospecting new sales leads, talking to potential customers or collaborative partners, putting together a consortium and helping to write the proposal for a funding bid. As a fast growing, innovative business, Novocomms is open to collaboration and partnership with other businesses, which is a really interesting part of the job.
Q: Do you think the UK electronics sector would benefit from greater diversity?
A: “I absolutely do. And not just the electronics sector, but business in general.
“It has been shown again and again that more diversity within industry makes for better outcomes. Speaking at a recent Women in Electronics forum in the USA, Michael Knight, CEO of Endries International argued that diverse groups outperform non-diverse groups, and these teams make better decisions than individuals 67% of the time.
“For gender and ethnically diverse groups, this number jumps to 87%. A more varied workforce is not a box ticking exercise, as some would say, it’s actually really good for developing strong and successful business!”
- Katie Howard is a senior sales manager at Novocomms