Women in Engineering: My journey into EngineeringBrenda Barnard
In a world where expectations greatly outweigh encouragement, the need for women to share their journeys has become increasingly important. Often opportunity is not enough to support women to face their fears and take the risks that they are cautioned against — be that within their personal lives or professional career. Challenging stereotypes, coupled with scrutiny, can be exhausting and discouraging. When your capabilities and decisions are often questioned, following your dreams can feel impossible.
This blog aims to talk through my personal decisions, challenges, and successes associated with joining industries such as Engineering and Technology — with the ultimate goal of empowering other women to do the same.
1. About me.
I am a Chemical Engineer by trade, having recently swapped my hat for that of a Software Engineer at Credera UK. Having been fortunate enough to be a part of their first ever graduate programme, I was exposed to an array of new technologies and knowledge for a period of three months. Currently, I am stationed on a project within the pharmaceutical industry, working closely with our American counterparts on technologies such as Next.js, content management systems (Contentful), and AWS. Spending four days a week on my client commitments affords me the ability to learn on the job, with Fridays free for skills development and internal tasks.
I was born and raised in South Africa and made the move with my partner to the UK a few years ago. I currently live on a farm (not my own, unfortunately) and have befriended many a chicken and spider. I love problem solving, reading, and painting — but most importantly, I love food and cooking (if you ever need comfort food, you know who to call).
2. My journey into engineering.
Growing up, I wanted to be an artist — I wanted to create, build, break, and be imaginative. During high school, I fell in love with science and problem-solving — but never lost my desire to express myself. Wanting to combine both passions in my future career, I chose to enter the world of engineering.
Engineering is unique and, most importantly, broad. People are awarded the opportunity to exercise logical thinking whilst having creative freedoms and inputs. Additionally, the problem-solving skills you learn under one branch of engineering are transferrable to many others. I started my journey into the field of engineering as a Chemical Engineer — investing the better part of seven years knee deep in muck, math, and — at times — questionable chemicals. Throughout my studies, I was exposed to many different avenues of logical thinking — from designing reactors, to solving fancy maths with programming. It was a wild ride into the world of polymers, chemicals, chemistry, physics, and most importantly (at least for me), programming.
Now — don’t get me wrong — I was not always into coding and for the longest time, I feared it. For some reason, I was always encouraged to explore the world of sciences but discouraged from the world of coding. It was my understanding that this came from a place of concern and that programming was considered too difficult for me to pursue (ouch!). So, I steered clear of it — even going so far as not coding a single thing during a coding-based semester test (we had to write down our answers — strange considering the goal). It was only in the final year of my undergraduate degree and, after meeting the right people, that I felt empowered to use programming outside of lectures — soon using the skill in my post-graduate research. My partner and peers were kind and patient, dedicating time to help build my understanding and confidence.
When I completed my seven-year journey and rinsed off some of the sludge — I found a job posting for a graduate programme in Software Development/Engineering at Credera UK. I would be lying if I said that I understood all the requirements and technical jargon used in the advert — but it sounded so interesting. After realising that I possessed none of the candidate requirements listed, I just knew I had to apply for the post. Did programming still scare me? Yes, and navigating the world of computing is at times confusingly intimidating — but it is so worth it; every day I learn something new. Best of all, I will never have to give up my creative interests to pursue the more logic-based ones. As an engineer — regardless of my field — I will always be able to combine creative and logical thinking — a rarity among career paths.
3. Challenges faced along the way.
Engineering never really scared me. I welcomed the challenge — and at times, both personally and professionally, there were many. It is no secret that many avenues of the field are male dominated — during my studies, industrial engineering seemed to have the most women, and computer engineering the least. Chemical was about a 50:50 split.
It can be incredibly difficult. The questions, assumptions, discouragement, worry, and the discrimination. I have spent many nights in tears because of the comments of others, the doubt from loved ones and the frustration that comes with being misunderstood. Every woman has their own journey and disappointment that comes along with it. From receiving pink safety shoes — despite my favourite colour being green — to concerns about working on chemical plant because it was considered too dangerous for me as a young woman — the experiences vary. The world is complicated and messy. No matter how hard I worked, I was not always taken seriously.
I have faced a lot of resistance when it comes to the career choices I have made. Culture and tradition can play a large role in that. I was fortunate in that I was able to study what I wanted and be who I wanted, but it did not come without its scrutiny. The questions and concerns about working within a male dominated field were frequent. The fact that the job was messy, dirty, and physically intensive was a subject of concern for many (except me, I loved it!). Of course, the questions about whether there was time for me to start a family, and have the appropriate work hours to raise them, were also thrown out there by family and friends.
Despite the negative experiences — I found that the joy and satisfaction that came with doing something challenging greatly outweighed the disappointment or frustration felt along the way. I feel resilient and determined to do what makes me happy. Joining Credera was life changing for me — it is one of the few environments that I have found to be healthy — especially as a woman in engineering. The challenges I now face are more aligned with skills development.
One thing I have had to come to grips with is the fact that I was literally starting over. Not only was this daunting, but it also terrified me to let go of the things that I knew. Having had no real tech knowledge or experience, I have had to learn as I go and rely on others for support. I still struggle with ‘imposter syndrome’ and often lack confidence in my work. Despite this, I have always been able to reach out to my peers when I needed to soundboard or was confused. Now, more than six months into my tech journey, I have learned how to do research and adjust to a continuously changing environment. Looking back at the decisions I have made, I would not change a thing. Nothing I did was a waste of time. The skills I learned in Chem. Eng. are still applicable to my day-to-day workings. If I think about it, I wouldn’t be where I am today if I didn’t follow the path I did — and no, I do not regret a thing.
4. My advice to other girls and women.
Something I wish I knew quite early on in life was that people will always have something to say, no matter which path you are on. People will have other goals and dreams in mind for you — and you may feel pressure to pursue what others prioritise and deem appropriate. I can assure you that even if you were to do that, it would not be enough, and you will end up unhappy. I strongly encourage you to let people talk, let them worry, doubt, and complain — that is ultimately their problem. Life is too short to indulge others — instead, focus on your own dreams and aspirations. Do what makes you happy, and if you do not know what that is yet, I implore you to take your time figuring that out. Do not let social norms and expectations rush you or your dreams.