Diversity, inclusion and holding the door open for those behind

Published on Nov 24, 2022

Cambridge hosts the fourth annual Women in Aerospace event


The 4th annual Women in Aerospace event was held in Cambridge on 21st November. The event provided an opportunity for women from varying backgrounds, disciplines, and careers to discuss the importance of diversity in the aviation industry and how it can help transform the sector to one that works better for people and the planet.

The event was held at the Whittle Laboratory and Newnham College at Cambridge University and hosted by the EPSRC Centre for Doctoral Training (CDT) in Future Propulsion and Power (FPP).  With more than 80 women in attendance, this was the largest event yet, with 36% engineering degree undergraduates, not only from the CDT partner universities (Cambridge, Oxford and Loughborough) but also from other leading universities around the country (Bath, Durham and Imperial College). PhD students, and women from industry, Government and academia, were also in attendance

Audience to the Women in Aerospace Panel

Dr. Maria Vera-Morales (Senior CDT Fellow) said: “This is now our 4th Women in Aerospace and every year it gets bigger! It’s great to see the buzz and enthusiasm in the room as people share experiences and opportunities.”

The event began with a panel session chaired by Dr Maria Vera-Morales and included Grazia Vittadini (Chief Technology Officer at Rolls-Royce), Carrie Lambert (Head of Sustainability at Reaction Engines), and Dr. Grace Belshaw (EPSRC Portfolio Manager for Fluid Dynamics and Aerodynamics). Current CDT FPP students prepared the questions to the panel and the topic discussed included the challenges and opportunities of the aviation sector, and the obstacles faced by women in engineering and STEM disciplines. The audience also benefited from the panellists’ sharing their journeys to the leading roles they play today. Attendees had the opportunity to ask questions that covered everything from challenges faced by being the only female worker in the room, and the mechanisms to overcome them, to the motivations behind career moves.

Carrie Lambert said “There is a lot of pressure on the aviation industry to become sustainable. Reaction Engines is developing technology to help with the transition alongside thinking about how to reduce the environmental impact of our whole supply chain. We must be data-driven to know we are one the right path and me must continuously evaluate our work to ensure we are delivering impact.”

Carrie noted that these kinds of initiatives hold a great deal of importance in retaining women in Engineering and STEM subjects. “Events like this can help in two ways; firstly they are inspirational. By sharing some of our stories, what we do in our roles and the challenges we face, hopefully we can provide insights to women just starting out in their careers. Secondly, they are supportive. Recognising that whilst we face some common challenges there are other experiences that are more pertinent to females in the industry. Events like this provide opportunities for us to talk about those sorts of things and share what our individual coping mechanisms and skills might be, and what our companies and peers have done to support us with some of those challenges.”

Dr Grace Belshaw highlighted a recent EPSRC report which outlines ‘Tomorrow’s Engineering Research Challenges’, which include understanding complex engineering systems, digital design and achieving net-zero. Grace stressed the importance of doctoral training centres such as the FPP CDT in training future engineers to be resilient and adaptive to change in order to tackle the key challenges that we will face over the next 10 to 15 years. “Don’t be afraid to take your career in a different direction than you had expected, you will have gained skills you can take with you to continue developing. Make sure you’re always open to continued learning, the skills needed in the future might currently be unknown, but Engineers will always have a lot to offer the world.”

Grazia Vittadini explained, “My career has not been a straight line, it has zig-zagged. You should be open to change and be the world expert in yourself. Find your strengths and passions and continue your way.  As an engineer you can really change the world.”

Panel discussion: Dr. Grace Belshaw (L), Grazia Vittadini (C) and Carrie Lambert (R)

After the panel, Prof. Graham Pullan, (Director of EPSRC CDT in Future Propulsion and Power), gave an overview of the programme, highlighting the breadth of topics covered by the CDT in response to the changing landscapes in both propulsion and power sectors. The CDT in Future Propulsion and Power – a collaboration between the University of Cambridge, University of Oxford and Loughborough University in association with Rolls-Royce, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, Siemens Energy and Dyson and funded by the EPSRC – is the leading centre for research into sustainable propulsion and power, providing training in the key skills that engineers will need to become the leaders of the future.

Prof. Graham Pullan (Director, EPSRC CDT in Future Propulsion and Power) said “The mission of our CDT is to train the Net Zero Propulsion and Power engineers of the future. This event is a fantastic opportunity for us to learn, from leading engineers in the field, how to build and support a diverse student cohort.”

Dr. Shini Somara (Science, Technology and Innovation Broadcaster, Fluid Dynamicist – Mechanical Engineer) also added her thoughts, “It was so inspiring to meet women in aerospace from a range of different generations.  This CDT event highlighted for me, how far trailblazing women have come, how empowered we are now, and the exciting challenges faced by incredibly talented women, who are bold, brilliant and determined to take care of our aerospace future.  I see diversity, equality and inclusion increasing each year in this cutting-edge field and it’s really encouraging – well done CDT.  You’re a powerful force in Engineering!”

Tour of the Whittle Laboratory

The afternoon concluded with a tour of the facilities at the Whittle Laboratory given by Cambridge academics and current CDT PhD students, as well as an opportunity to hear about the plans for National Centre in Propulsion and Power that will be housed in the New Whittle Laboratory. The attendees then moved on to Newnham College where there were further opportunities to network ahead of the evening meal.

Tour of the Whittle Laboratory

The pinnacle of the event was a keynote speech, introduced by Professor Dame Ann Dowling (Deputy Vice-Chancellor and Emeritus Professor of Mechanical Engineering at the University of Cambridge), and given by Grazia Vittadini. Within her speech, Grazia recounted her path into aviation, reflecting on the range of opportunities she received, and the obstacles she overcame, during her twenty-year career with Airbus, ultimately bringing her to Rolls-Royce where she now holds the position of Chief Technology Officer. She stated that her career moves were “worth every moment of doubt and pain”, that forced her out of her comfort zone; each time, starting from scratch, it was her passion for aviation that got her through.

Professor Dame Ann Dowling introducing the keynote speaker Grazia Vittadini

By embracing these new feats, Grazia has become an inspiration for the next generation of engineers, redefining what makes a woman in aviation. Her dedication to improving the experience of women within the aviation sector is admirable, however, she emphasised the work still needed to be done to reach real equality within engineering.

A moment of the keynote speech by Grazia Vittadini

Grazia said “The aviation sector is at a crossroads, achieving net zero is non-negotiable. But no one person can push the levers to get there. Everyone must work together, from policymakers to academia to industry. It will require diverse skills that can accelerate innovation. Let’s find unity in diversity, it is our greatest strength, and it will power this transition. Be as bold as you can be in the face the challenge. Don’t just walk-through open doors but hold them open for those behind. It is only through this that we will be able to create an environment that benefits everyone. ”

Prof. Rob Miller (Director, Whittle Lab) echoed Grazia’s message, “Getting to Net Zero in both the aerospace and energy sectors requires a mix of talented engineers who are diverse not only in terms of engineering discipline, but also in background, experience and perspective.”

Speaking about the event, Ashley van Bruygom, a second year PhD student at Loughborough University, said, “It was a privilege to be surrounded by so many incredible women at a wide range of stages in their careers. This event highlights the importance of providing women with the opportunity to talk about pressures on the industry, the space to speak about their personal experiences, and the occasion to discuss how we can re-write the dialogue surrounding women and being a woman in aviation.”

Professor Dame Ann Dowling reflected: “It was a pleasure to take part in this inspiring event. There was a real buzz in the room as women in aerospace at all career stages shared their experiences, ideas and plans, and discussed their current work. I was struck by how much the event – and the group – had grown since the inaugural Women in Aerospace dinner back in 2017.  Aviation plays an important role in bringing people together from around the world but is one of the hardest sectors to decarbonise. The creativity and innovation that these women bring are essential to meeting our Net Zero goals.”

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