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Carolyn Griffiths, new IMechE President: Changing the culture

Katia Moskvitch

The IMechE’s new president Carolyn Griffiths says we need to change attitudes to make the profession more diverse and to attract more young people into engineering.

Carolyn, you come to IMechE with both national and international experience in one of the most traditional mechanical engineering sectors: the railways. You used to be the UK’s chief inspector for the Rail Accident Investigation Branch, the organisation you set up. What’s your ambition as IMechE president? What are you hoping to bring to the institution? 

Past presidents and indeed other institutions have talked about collaboration among the various professional organisations, the diversity agenda, getting more young people into engineering as we lack sufficient numbers of engineers – these are all important issues but still yet to be resolved. To be really effective, we need to work with other professional organisations. 

Why do you think many young people in the UK aren’t interested in engineering?

It seems that generally engineering isn’t well portrayed to schoolchildren although there are some exceptions of great initiatives – but often outside of the curriculum. If you present children with interesting problems, and possibly if you don’t mention the engineering word, there is evidence you will have greater success with engagement. We need to be conscious that we are up against some very long-standing stereotypes, which wrongly portray what our profession is about. 

I think we should explore introducing engineering through problem-solving, and weave that into other subjects, not just maths and science but maybe also through geography and history, for example. It would be a new and potentially very effective way of communicating engineering through the curriculum framework. 

Are you also planning to collaborate with some international institutions, to see how the issue of attracting more girls into engineering is dealt with in other countries? I come from Canada, and at my university, McGill, there were at least 40% girls in the mechanical engineering faculty in my year...

I think there are some lessons we can learn from overseas. The UK’s performance is one of the worst in Europe in terms of the percentage of women engineers. It may be because of our very long-standing culture, with its roots in what engineering stood for decades ago. But changing culture is not easy, particularly where it is to some extent self-perpetuating; so we need to do something different to change it. 

In my previous job, I was the chief inspector of rail accidents for the UK. The railway sector uses what is known as a safety maturity model, a tool that helps organisations do peer and self-review. It helps people evaluate where they stand in the grand scheme of things relative to their peers, to see good and best practice and where they could improve. I know there are models like this for the management and improvement of equality and diversity. And I think it could be really good if institutions might collectively promote such a facility, and find a way of recognising companies using this.

Although our legislation changed a couple of years ago, making shared parental leave to be more in line with some other countries, our scheme is different in some significant ways. In the UK the pay for such leave is lower, and our scheme does not overtly ‘encourage’ men to take paternity leave. Other countries have legislation such that if fathers do not take certain leave the parents lose that provision. It seems in these countries the uptake of paternity leave is much higher whereas in the UK it is still low (cultural attitudes and loss of pay being significant, and where the primary earner is usually the father). 

If we had parental leave arrangements that meant men were as likely to take it as women, it would really level the playing field in terms of recruitment and promotion. And flexible working would no longer be seen as more of a female issue. 

Recent IMechE research showed that a quite high proportion of women leave engineering in their early years of employment and a significant number do not return; the perceived culture being one of the issues.

Have you encountered any bias yourself? 

Yes, I have. There will inevitably be a different culture in organisations where the workforce is almost all men compared to where the numbers of men and women are more equal. But I want to be clear that I wouldn’t have succeeded in the engineering sector and in a pretty traditional industry, the railways, if these issues were insurmountable or if in any way they outweighed the enjoyment and positives I have experienced throughout my career. 

What do you think is the biggest challenge the engineering profession is facing today? 

By this I am understanding you are asking about the people issues as opposed to technical issues. The capability to attract young people into engineering, and to enable them not only to keep up with today’s rapidly changing technology across the various engineering disciplines and also disciplines that are closely allied, but also so they can become the innovators of the future.

How’s the ongoing merger of the digital and physical worlds impacting mechanical engineering?

Massively – and I don’t think we’ve seen the full potential yet. Obviously ‘digital’ can be many different things, but for me it’s about being able to translate information and use information in a different way. In my sector, it’s certainly enabling huge amounts of intelligence to better manage for example design processes and the condition of rail assets. I think it will transform the way that we actually operate trains. 

How come we still don’t have many high-speed trains in the UK?

High-speed trains by and large operate on dedicated infrastructure running significant distances and we don’t have this yet. Dedicated new high-speed railway routes require very significant investment, pose challenging political questions concerning priority and cost benefits as well as questions of logistics, routeing and connecting into our conventional rail network. 

Britain is one of the few countries using the third rail for electrification and, whenever there are some leaves on the line or snow, everything grinds to a halt. Why is that?

We are not unique in our use of third-rail electrification. There are other countries with more rail systems that use third rail. The electrification of longer distances is by overhead lines, which is more feasible technically and in terms of overall cost.

You also asked about leaves on the line. That is a very different issue concerning the condition of the top of the rail where the train wheels run. Leaf mulch on the rail head reduces the adhesion between the wheels and the rail and makes traction and braking of trains difficult. We have a very old network. As far as possible, trees have been removed from the side of the railway. 

But trains these days are fitted with automatic wheel-slip and slide control systems, and have the ability to lay sand on the top of the rail in poor adhesion conditions to increase friction. And there are improved programmes to clean the rail head in areas vulnerable to this problem. 

What are your main concerns as president?

Changes in technology are fast changing the way we live, work and learn, and it is therefore in this changing environment that it is ever more important for this institution to continue to take a leading role and support the engineering community. And I mean not just our members but also organisations and people who are not engineers but who work with them. 

This institution has amazing capability; we must continue to positively engage our members’ experience and knowledge, which will be vital in delivering all these things. 

What are your biggest achievements?

I’ve been really fortunate, and engineering has offered me huge opportunities. I’ve worked overseas and in the UK, and in massively different jobs. I can look back with great satisfaction that I have actually changed things – in being part of new railways, leading or creating new organisations and improving rail operations. My last full-time job was as the chief inspector of the Rail Accident Investigation Branch for the whole of the UK. I established the organisation, its legislation, necessary formal agreements with the police, the coroners and the regulators, recruiting skilled professionals and creating bespoke operational procedures and training, and managing all the logistics. 

During the time I was then in charge of its operations, we influenced significant improvements in the industry, and the organisation continues to do so. When I left, we were considered to be a world leader among similar organisations and one of the top-performing units in the Civil Service. 

The bottom line is, you can do almost anything you want as an engineer, and it’s incredibly rewarding. 

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