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Honouring the Legacy and Imagining the Future: Interview with Elizabeth Donnelly

Honouring the Legacy and Imagining the Future: Interview with Elizabeth Donnelly

The women who founded WES, all they wanted was to allow women to work in engineering. That’s my guiding light. We have objects as a charity to promote women in engineering and educate the public about women in engineering.

Elizabeth Donnelly is a woman with an impressive journey. Currently the CEO of the Women’s Engineering Society (WES) in the UK, Elizabeth is an engineer and an executive who as a young woman wanted to pursue a career in politics. She worked in the IT, aviation and aerospace, and pharmaceutical industries, and this is just some of her journey. She also chaired the Royal Academy of Engineering and Science (RAeS) Education and Skills Committee, acted as Deputy Chair of the Women in Aviation and Aerospace Committee, and as a non-executive director of the East Midlands Regional Development Agency. Elizabeth also runs her own consulting company, working with different charities and universities.

Dorotea Filipan Elizabeth, welcome and thank you for being here.

Elizabeth Donnelly Thank you for inviting me.

DF You have had quite a career. You started originally in IT, graduating and specializing in systems thinking. Then you worked with Rolls Royce and were awarded the membership of the Royal Aeronautical Society as a result. This took you to ADS, the trade association for aerospace, defence, security and space, where you led skills policy.  You chaired the RAeS Education and Skills Committee and were a founding member and later Deputy Chair of the Women in Aviation and Aerospace Committee. From 2008 to 2011, you were a non-executive director of the East Midlands Regional Development Agency, and in 2013, you set up your own consulting company and you worked with charities and universities. After that you completed an MSc in Systems Thinking in Practice before joining WES as its CEO in 2018.

This is one impressive journey, but as with most great stories, while impressive and inspiring to learn about, they’re not necessarily an easy one. Could you please share with us how you look back on your life and career from where you are now?

ED Absolutely. As you have just said, it is very easy to look back and think, Oh, wow, that’s very impressive! And it looks very easy, but it was very difficult along the way.

When I first left University, I failed my law degree by 3% and then again by 4%. I went into administration, and I didn’t really know where I was going to end up and was very bowed down by that. At the time I was quite focused on my political career because I was a very active member of the Labour Party and I wanted to get into local politics to eventually become an MP. So, I had that kind of focus and drive. The rest didn’t really matter to me until the late 1999 when I moved away from Oxford. I was working for a pharmaceutical company in a position where I was talking business to technical people and technical to businesspeople. I realized that I had quite a knack for that, but one of the big failures of that project was when I tried to explain to some technical people that the six weeks of data that had been collected for the pharmaceutical records needed to go into a brand-new database. To which they said that it wasn’t on the requirements list. And then I realized that the requirements list was finalised before I started. That taught me the importance of planning at the beginning and constantly revising the plan at each step of a project.

Photo credit: WES

In 2001 I joined Synavant, a pharmaceutical tech company for which I was developing one of their systems. There I learned to make the most of every opportunity – not just to learn from the job that I was doing, but also to listen to briefings from the businesspeople and understand what was happening on a larger scale.

For example, while I was working at Synavant my father died very suddenly. I rang my boss to inform her that I had just had a death in the family and that on my desk there was a laptop from one of our pharmaceutical companies. I told her that she literally just needed to dial it in (this was back in the day when you needed to use a dial-in modem to get your internet connection), check it is working and then send it back to the client. And my boss said to that, Yeah, sure. About three weeks later, when we went to the client, we realized nobody had done that and suddenly I was being criticized for not having done this. And I said to my boss, who was calling me out, Hang on, I did ask you to do it and you said you had. That was when I learned how office politics works. Sometimes it is better not to say anything and just accept that it is your fault even when it isn’t.

However, at that point in time, although I was ambitious, I just didn’t see a way forward. It wasn’t until I was working at Rolls Royce’s Trade Union and became a non-executive director for the Regional Development Agency, a member of the executive committee of Unite the Union and was doing work with the Royal Aeronautical Society that I realized that people identified talent in me that I hadn’t seen in myself. And I’m really pleased that that happened because often when you’re in a role, you don’t really know where you’re heading. It takes a lot of people pushing you forward and supporting you and saying, You can do this. But I was let go six times in my career and all in all it was very hard at times just to keep going and think, What am I going to do with stage 21 of my career?

DF I think that everyone with similar experience can sympathizes with that. What gave you the strength to get up and move on every time you got knocked down?

ED Well, sometimes I didn’t have the strength. The second or third time I lost my job, I remember walking out of the office the day they said I’ve been made redundant, but that I still needed to come back and do the job for a month. I just went to the pub with some friends and thought, Oh my God, what am I going to do? So, sometimes, it was a case of going to the pub and drowning my sorrows or talking to my significant other and my family and friends. Mostly what kept me going was the knowledge that I needed to eat, and I needed to pay my rent because I didn’t want to have to go back to my parents. I think that sometimes men have a greater understanding of that because they’ve been expected to be the bread winners, while women don’t really start thinking in those terms until they’re in the middle of it, which is a double-edged sword. Also, a lot of people look at women, particularly if they are in a relationship or married, and say, Oh, you’re okay, you’ve got a husband and a family to support you. But actually, a lot of us want to be independent and do our own thing. So, even when there is that support, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you can fall back on that entirely. Not to mention that many families rely on both incomes. I think that is mostly why I’ve had such a crazy career, because I was always making sure that I had a way of making the rent.

I was let go six times in my career, and what I think needs to be remembered is that to be told you’ve lost a job doesn’t mean that you’re a bad person or a bad employee.

My next job was at Oxford University Press, where I was made redundant again and ended up temping for the Oxford University international programmes. I was putting on conferences and studies and courses for the summer for about a year, which was an incredibly useful experience. After that, I got a job working on desktop publishing with a company called LMC International, which gives advice about commodities. Because I was the person who knew the most about computing, I was asked to install the Internet and email on every single computer in the company. I would never have gotten into computing in the way that I did if I hadn’t been employed in that role. Sometimes these happy accidents turn out to be really helpful. But what I also think needs to be remembered is that to be told you’ve lost a job, doesn’t mean necessarily that you’re a bad person or a bad employee. The circumstances where I was made redundant, in most cases, were because the economy was doing a downturn, or the company in particular, and we had to lose heads in order to cut costs.

That taught me a great deal about how to run a business in terms of what you are going to do if you have to make people redundant. Because you have got their livelihood to think about and a company to run. And I’m very aware of that when I run the Women’s Engineering Society. I also do everything to ensure that we don’t get into that situation in the first place. That is why the Women’s Engineering Society is expanding within our means so that we don’t have to cut anybody.

DF How hard is it to keep that balance of thinking about people’s livelihood and, as the CEO, the wellbeing of a company or organization that you’re heading?

ED I work for the benefit of the company, so I have to make decisions that will ensure the Society will exist for another 100 years. Only yesterday we locked away and sealed a time capsule for our successors in 2119 and it made me realize that while I’m still in charge, I am responsible for making sure that WES certainly exists to see that day. So, my responsibility is to the company, but having been made redundant so many times, I am also duty-bound to take care of our team who work really, really hard for us, and we want to make sure that they can continue working.

DF You just said that you prepared a time capsule for WES 200th birthday, so maybe for some of our readers who may eventually not be aware: WES is the oldest organization of women engineers, scientists, and technologists in the world, which was founded right after World War One. It is a lot to live up to, so to speak. And being the CEO of WES for you it might mean carrying not only a century of legacy, but responsibility for its people and future as well. How does one balance this as a leader? And what, in your opinion, makes a good leader?

Photo credit: WES

ED When we talk about the heritage and all of our values, every employee and volunteer is a custodian of our heritage and a contributor to our future, and we take that very seriously. We have a fantastic woman, Helen Close, who is our Heritage Officer, and she is working on cataloguing all of the images that we have, making sure that we are taking care of our artefacts. For example, we have the entire set of diaries of Verena Homes given to us. This is the context in which we work, and it’s a very prestigious history full of so many fantastic women engineers who came before us. And there are days when you think, That’s a bit overwhelming. How can I follow on from Dame Caroline Haslett, who invented the three-pin electric plug, or Amy Johnson, who was a great flight engineer, who won lots of records in flying solo, or Beatrice Schilling who designed the RAE restrictor for Spitfire engines and helped us win World War II? I work on the basis that the women who founded WES, all they wanted was to allow women to work in engineering. That’s my guiding light. We have objects as a charity, to promote women in engineering and to educate the public about women in engineering and I focus on that and believe that we will make our own history along the way.

As far as the leadership goes, a lot of it is concerned with hiring really good people to do day-to-day work, so that I can focus on managing the people who do that work to ensure they feel supported and that they will always get answers to the questions that only I as the CEO can answer. But it’s also about being inspiring. I have rules internally. I never punch down. I never make fun of people who work for me. So, I’m going to make fun of anybody else, myself or the government or somebody who can take it, but I will never disparage our partners or our members. Because they joined us, they give us money and they want to be part of our future. Our companies are trying to make the effort to promote more women in engineering, a lot of which is done by modelling good behaviour.

We are very transparent, so whenever we change policies, we tell the team, and try to have open conversations about it. I also try to lead by example, which means I don’t ask my team to do anything that I wouldn’t do. I very much expect them to work very hard when they’re working, but to take breaks and not to think about us when they’re on their weekend. If I send an email early in the morning, I’m always saying, Please ignore that, I know it’s early. You don’t have to respond until you get back to the office. I want people to enjoy their life. Because if you’re always working, then you’re not going to be very balanced and I want people to bring their enthusiasm and passion to the job, which they can only do if they feel happy and balanced.

Photo credit: WES

WES is the oldest organization of women engineers, scientists, and technologists in the world, which was founded right after World War One.

DF That is a rare and wholesome attitude that we at WPS not only endorse but try to accentuate, that this balance between work and private life is crucial. You mentioned the difference between men and women and their respective perceptions of work and being the bread winner. While yes, there used to be this perception that men are the bread winners, it’s always been in the sense of a 9 to 5 job. But we women have more of a perception that our work is never done. We’re always working – at work, at home, running the household, managing the children and so on. So, for us it’s more difficult than for men to just make a clean cut and say, Now it’s me time, and I’m going to do something for myself. How do you balance that?

ED When we moved into our new house last summer, we designed our workspace around it. My partner and I each have a designated office space in one of the rooms. When I finish work for the day, I close my computer and I go sit on my sofa and then I have literally got my back to my workspace and can shut it out. Unfortunately, I have an iPad that beeps me with emails and notifications, because as a CEO, you never know when you might be needed. But I try to just have a quick look and if it is not urgent, I leave it for later. I also do a lot of crafts and during lockdown, I subscribed to a number of craft boxes and once a month I get a box to create new things. I sew a lot and create things like lamps and candles. I absolutely adore problems, logic problems, puzzles, and that kind of thing. I also read a lot and listen to audiobooks and podcasts. I believe it’s crucial to relax and do different things in your life away from your job because when your mind is occupied with other interesting things, the back of your head is rubbing away at that knot of a problem you’ve got at work. So, when you go back to your desk, you go, Oh, that was easy, I just have to do this! And it’s surprising the number of times that happens.

Photo credit: Elizbeth Donnelly

And sometimes the clue is to simply articulate something. We have a Teddy bear called Prof who is dressed in a cap and robe, and he hangs on a wall. Sometimes, when we have a really tough problem, we literally go and stand in front of Prof and tell him about our problem and by speaking rather than thinking in your own head, you use different areas of your brain. So, before we know it, Prof has solved the problem for us, so to speak, because the fact that we have had someone to tell the problem to, allowed us to approach it from a different perspective.

DF That is absolutely brilliant! What a lovely story.

Now, we have talked about the history of WES and we talked about your history. From your position as the CEO of WES, the oldest organization of women engineers and scientists in the world, what would you say you are most proud of in your career? What is your biggest achievement?

ED Well, I’ve got two, really. When I was working for Rolls Royce in the mid-2000s, they were looking to create a new factory for making blades. They were in consultation with the governments in Virginia, in the U.S., in Singapore and with the UK government. But because the UK was a member of the European Union at that point, they weren’t able to offer us what the state aid. Meaning, the UK government couldn’t offer the same funding that the U.S. and Singapore governments could. So, we knew that we might lose that deal. But because I’m a system thinker and am able to retain and combine large amounts of information from various sources and connect them in my head instantly, I was aware from the news that the government was about to announce the building of a third nuclear power station. So, I said to the Business Department that there is no way they were going to be able to get enough nuclear engineers to run the new nuclear power station, because the only nuclear engineers that were being trained were already working for Rolls Royce and they were already very highly paid. So, the government might try and tempt them away with a higher salary but Rolls Royce would always be able to outbid it. So, I suggested to the government to offer Rolls Royce a slice of the “nuclear pie” and that way we could collaborate, by using Rolls Royce’s nuclear engineers to support the new building of this power station, as long as Rolls Royce built a factory in the UK. I just mentioned this in conversation to a very senior civil servant and he went away to the Minister, and lots of talks on both sides later, four new factories and 800 new jobs were secured and I’m incredibly proud of that. In fact, the Permanent Secretary said to me that it was the pinnacle of his career, so I am hugely proud of that.

Photo credit: WES

The second thing that I’m most proud of is WES itself. When I joined in 2018, we had just had a massive deficit of over £100,000. We were a very small team of about three or four, and I was asked to come in and professionalize the society because it had mostly been run by volunteers with a small team in the office for decades. When I came in, I was very quickly able to change the way the governance was run in terms of electing the trustees. We changed our Articles of Association so that we now have Board Members who serve for three years and who are elected in thirds. Also, you can only stand for six years, after which you must take a year off. That means that everyone serves for three years, but every year three of them come off. In that way you get fresh faces and minds and ideas around the table. During the pandemic, we ran a change management project within the staff, and it was made very clear that we were looking to expand, and we were looking to be much more of a presence and have a greater effect in getting more women into engineering. I think in some ways we were fortunate that it was the pandemic because a lot of the staff decided that working from home was not really what they wanted, so they chose alternative positions. That was actually good, because it opened an opportunity to create a brand-new team that could then focus on building WES. We have just hired two new people to be our partner managers and we’re currently interviewing for a new events manager.

Photo credit: WES

Now I’ve got this wonderful team of men and women around me who are just as passionate about promoting women in engineering as I am. We are very transparent, very open. I deliberately hire employees who are really great and nice people, calm, committed and passionate. So, I’m very proud of what I’ve done. And although we had a small deficit last year because of the pandemic – we lost about £130,000 in income – I managed to keep the cost down as well. And it looks like we’re going to be making significant surplus, the biggest we’ve ever made in my time. I inherited a £100,000 deficit, then we made nearly £10,000 surplus in my first year, nearly £14,000 surplus the following year, and it looks like we might double back to about £30,000 this year. I’ve still got another six weeks to go, but I’m very proud of what we’ve been able to do in such a short time.

DF Truly incredible. Looking ahead, could you tell us a little bit more about the major projects that WES is currently working on and how WES imagines the future?

ED Yes, we have a number of set piece conferences and events that we have had throughout the years I’ve been with WES, including our annual conference, which has been held nearly every single year since our inception. We have a student conference which is held usually in person at university, but we have held it online in the last two years due to COVID. We have our Caroline Haslett Lecture, which is given by a senior woman in the industry. Over the last couple of years, we have put most of this onto virtual platforms, enabling more people to attend. We now have partner webinars, which we will continue because it means businesspeople can attend in the morning for about an hour and a half without having to leave their workplace. We’ve created a webinar for our flagship program, International Women in Engineering Day (INWED). We reached a potential of 526,000,000 people on Twitter last year, which is astonishing, and we trended at number one for a long time. We will always hold that as a webinar because we were able to reach over 500 people internationally.

Previously we would just have a celebration of the top 50 women in engineering and only a couple of hundred people in a room. This morning, we held our very first ever Engineering Apprenticeship Showcase where we had 759 people registered, and we also know that a lot of teachers attended who were broadcasting our showcase on the television with their class, which is fantastic. We will definitely be doing that again because we were explaining how to get into an apprenticeship and talking to young women who are studying apprenticeships. It’s wonderful to hear how many of them were making a difference and were really enjoying themselves. If you are in the market for doing engineering, I recommend to do an apprenticeship, particularly if you want to go for a degree, because this way you will end up with no debt, working on life projects, and hopefully you’ll be able to buy a house very quickly because you will be earning while learning. We are also hoping to do a fundraising dinner later this year to celebrate our rewards. Currently we do those online or lecture and we’re looking to bring back the WE50 Awards in person.

Photo credit: WES

Earlier this year, we locked away and sealed a time capsule for our successors in 2119. This made me realize that while I’m still in charge, I am responsible for making sure that WES certainly exists to see that day.

As for how WES sees the future, we have seen an improvement in the last five years. For instance, 14.5% of all engineers in the UK are women and I think that we can only go up from there. If you look back at the 1980s, when I was leaving school, about 15% to 20% of all doctors and lawyers were women. So, I think that we are probably about 40 years behind the curve. I would like to speed up the process, and I think a lot of it is about momentum. Once you get a significant number of women entering engineering, then you will see even more women entering engineering.

We are going to be doing a project called Spotlight on the different types of engineering, because everyone knows that engineering is about building bridges or cars or doing mechanical things or maybe fitting an electrical system. But do they know that you can do things like electric engineering design? Do they know that you can talk about fire engineering, which is fantastic? Susan Deeny won our Karen Burt award a couple of years ago for designing a new type of fire system for an open plan distillery in Scotland, where because of the alcohol you can’t fight the fire like you would normally. I think that’s fascinating.

I imagine the future as having a lot more women engineers and solving a lot more problems. And when we look at issues like climate change, we look at mass migration, which will happen as a result of climate change. We look at artificial intelligence, which is changing how we interact and how we work with each other. I think all of that is going to be solvable by engineers, and I’d love to see a lot more women participating in that, because it’s only when engineering represents society that we get the results we want.

DF I love everything you just said, and particularly that you mention apprenticeships and teachers, students and pupils because more girls and women are needed in STEM-related studies and jobs. You continually consult and educate individuals, companies and organizations about it, but what are the experiences and driving forces behind that idea for you personally?

Photo credit: WES

ED Well, firstly because I am a woman, but also something I learned through speaking to women. The world has changed considerably from when I left school and went into university in the late 1980s, early 1990s. People are not prepared to just go and do a job. They are not prepared to just go and lay bricks. They, and particularly women, want to know whether they’re building a Cathedral or a bridge and the reason why they are building it. Women need to know that they are doing something for a purpose and engineering is very much about that. Our theme last year was “Serving Society”, and I think that engineering is serving society, giving women different things to do, not having every day be the same. Whenever we talk to women engineers, they all say how every day of their work is different. Another important factor is also the fact that everybody makes mistakes and in engineering we know that mistakes are how we learn. Partly because when you make a mistake, you not only learn how to do something better, but possibly even how to fix some problem on a greater scale that affects a great number of people. From mistakes comes innovation. Alexander Fleming accidentally left a petri dish open on his desk. He shouldn’t have done that. And in the world today, in a lab, he would probably be told, that he can’t go home before cleaning that mess up. But he did go home, and when he came back, he discovered that this mould had formed and was eating the bacteria and that’s how we came across penicillin. There are hundreds of thousands of examples of this kind of innovation through mistake. Mistakes are how we learn; mistakes are how we innovate. And I think that looking at mistakes in that way is a great way to live your life! If somebody under you has made a mistake and you just start laying the blame, all you are going to achieve is that people will start lying about it, to evade getting yelled at and you are going to find it significantly more difficult to get to the root of a problem. Being transparent about mistakes and being supportive about making mistakes is great.

Somebody once said to me, if Orville and Wilbur Wright had thought that one day a plane would have to have bedrooms, alcohol, toilets, emergency chutes and comfort for the passengers and carry a refrigerated area for wildflowers to come back from Africa, they would never have got off the ground. So, you start with the small things, and you build on that and that is how we achieve greatness.

I think that is really what we want to be doing: saying to young women, You can be part of building greatness, you can be part of leaving a legacy.

And for women who are thinking about getting into STEM and engineering, I have three steps of advice. Firstly, don’t close the door of opportunity until you have to, because that will leave you with lots of open possibilities. Now, I appreciate that some people will want to specialize, and that that means closing a lot of doors quite early on. But unless you are on that track, try not to close doors because you never know. Secondly, take everything around you on board, not just the work that you are doing, but other conditions as well. Back in the early 1990s, a friend of mine worked at a software company that had a contract with the government for whom they did everything. It was a very expensive contract and the company knew that if they delivered it on time, they would get all this money, which they could then use to expand the company. But the government refused to pay them repeatedly until the company was forced to go under. And guess what? That government then picked up that bespoke software that had been written for them as part of the administration. That story taught me to diversify and make sure I don’t put all my eggs in one basket because it could collapse and be over. And thirdly, be determined! Whatever you want to do, absolutely be determined to do it, because there are going to be teachers, family members, all sorts of people who will tell you that you can’t do that. We at WES know of young girls who have had to fight their teachers and schools to do three sciences and to do A-levels because they knew they wanted to be scientists or engineers and I think those are the sort of things that they shouldn’t have to fight for. They should just be able to say, I want to be an engineer, and have their teacher reply, Great, here is how you do it.

And the other thing is, if you don’t know what you want to do when you grow up or what you want to do with your career, don’t ask yourself What do I want to do? Instead, stop and think about what fulfils these three mindsets for you: What do you enjoy? What are you good at? And what do you find easy? In the centre of this trifecta there will be a sweet spot where all the same things will appear. That is what you should focus on. People often forget that just because you find something easy, it is not because it necessarily is easy. I cannot draw to save my life but there are people I know who are brilliant at it without giving it a second thought. So, if you find it easy and you are good at it and you like it, then that is where your heart should follow.

DF That is amazing advice. It is true that particularly now society seems to put a lot of pressure on children and young people having to decide on a career because that will determine what schools they will enrol to get the needed qualifications.

ED Another thing nobody thinks about is that a lot of the jobs that most young people who are in school now are going to be doing don’t exist yet. We don’t know what they are. My first proper job after I left university was a brochure distribution assistant at a tour operator’s. My job was to phone up lorry drivers and get them to transport books of holiday brochures to travel agents. Who uses the travel agent or a brochure nowadays? That job no longer exists. And okay, the job as a Chief Executive Officer of the Women’s Engineering Society existed 100 years ago, it was merely called the General Secretary, and we all know what the Chief Executive Officer does – runs a company. But some of the jobs I had, like desktop publishing for example, didn’t exist when I first started out. Being a business information person who translated tech to business and business to tech didn’t exist, lobbying government on behalf of Rolls Royce, that also didn’t exist as a job description. So, it is okay to just have an interest in going into a certain field like tech or engineering, but not knowing what the future holds. As long as you make sure you don’t close doors unless absolutely necessary and stay determined to follow your heart and do things that you are good at, find easy and enjoy, you can adapt and certainly find something to be passionate about in life.

WPS Elizabeth, thank you so much for this interview. It has been an absolute privilege and a joy, and hopefully only the first of many with WES’s incredibly gifted women.

ED Thank you so much for having me, it has been an absolute pleasure.

Find more inspiring stories in the Spring edition of the Women in Power Systems Magazine: Professions in Power. Download the free issue here.
The Women’s Engineering Society Annual Conference is taking place virtually on the 28th and 29th April. Tickets are limited, book your space here.