A spotlight on our female engineers


Happy International Women In Engineering Day 2021!  Now in its eighth year, INWED is the world’s biggest initiative celebrating the achievements of women in engineering and allied roles.
We’ve been speaking to some of our engineers about their experiences at NATS and how the past year has impacted them…

Nicky Smith-Brialey joined NATS in 2007, starting as a Trainee Air Traffic Controller in our college before swiftly moving into an engineering role that suited her more technical approach.  She has also worked for Virgin Atlantic, taking an engineering role at Gatwick Airport for six years.

Nicky

“I have a passion for aircraft but I’m not a major aircraft spotter” says Nicky, who got her engineering flair from working on cars at just seven years old. After my A-Levels I trained as an aeronautical engineer and I’ve been in engineering ever since.”

“The thing I enjoy the most is being operational and involved at the front line. Some might deem that as too much responsibility, but I like having that accountability. I like making sure that what I do makes a positive difference.”

Recently moving from being Manager of Outstation Support in the North to Group Engineering Manager for Farnborough and Gibraltar airports, Nicky is no stranger to change. And adding the pandemic into the mix, things have certainly changed over the last year.

“There are new challenges every single day” said Nicky. “One of the biggest challenges over the past year has been the weather and getting to/from our remote sites. Covid has also made it difficult – particularly for our island sites.”

A critical part of national infrastructure, radar stations are used to locate and safely guide the 2.6 million aircraft that fly through controlled UK airspace every year. Some radar sites are located at airports around the country, while others are in the more remote and inaccessible locations.

“I’m really proud of our team though. They are doing the best they can in a difficult situation. Even things that used to be simple, but we’re all pulling together to do what we can to get the job done.”

Despite the challenges of the last year, Nicky has also been focussed on expanding her horizons, having achieved an Incorporated Engineer award from the IET and Associate Membership of the Royal Aeronautical Society.

“I was doing some research recently and came across the Women’s Engineering Society (WES). I saw that they offer a fellowship so applied – and was totally shocked to see that I was awarded!” said Nicky.

The WES is a charity and a professional network of women engineers, scientists and technologists offering inspiration, support and professional development. Fellowships are awarded to individuals who have made an outstanding contribution to the field of engineering or a related sector, to the sustained encouragement of women in STEM, or in service to the Women’s Engineering Society.

“It’s all about inspiring women in the engineering community and supporting women in linked sciences. I believe that it’s important to provide a positive role model – we don’t have that many women in engineering, if you can lead by example then you should.”

“My experience as a woman in our business has not been without its challenges,” said Nicky. “The majority are supportive but on occasion it has been hard to prove that I am just as capable as the next person.”

“That’s why I started setting about getting some of these qualifications. I’ve also been doing my BSc over the last seven years, with NATS’ support and things are moving in the right direction – I’ve noticed much more diversity across our department.”

On advice for women joining the engineering industry, Nicky says: “This goes for anyone – believe in yourself. Don’t doubt your abilities. You are capable. Apply yourself for the sake of enjoying engineering or whatever job you’re doing!”

Kirstie Tedman is an iTEC Adaptation Tester in Technical Services, a job title that she sometimes struggles to explain to people outside of the aviation industry.

Kirstie

“My dad and uncle are total aviation geeks so they totally understand what I do. Mostly I tell people I test the system that helps air traffic controllers keep the planes apart in the sky! Particularly the bits that makes our system unique to the UK, so all the maps and the airspace structure and much more.

“Adaptation isn’t just data, its where the magic happens! The way I try and explain specifically what adaptation is at a high level, is to imagine you have a generic Sat-Nav system, you need to update it with the maps and road information for the UK from an SD card or similar. That is the “adaptation” – and where I come in!”

Kirstie started her interest in the aviation industry when she decided she wanted to be an air traffic controller. That didn’t work out, but she knew she wanted to stay in aviation.

“I have to say the best part of my job is definitely the people I work with. People at NATS are committed to their jobs, supportive of each other and will always go the extra mile. NATS is also a company that supports flexible working which is great for working parents like me.

She continued: “Sometimes it can be frustrating when I’m trying to solve a complex issue within the adaptation and I can’t – but that’s all part and parcel of being an engineer. Sometimes it just needs a second pair of eyes to crack it!”

Latest figures show that just under 13% of the UK engineering workforce is female and the effects of this are twofold – employers are missing out on a huge talent pool and also women are missing out on all the fantastic opportunities presented by a career in engineering.

“I think it’s really important for women to consider engineering as a career. Engineering is different every day, you get to be creative, analytical, logical and innovative. It’s extremely rewarding.

“I think that one of the main reasons fewer women take up careers in engineering is the lack of role models, which is why focus events such as NATS’ Future Minds event and INWED are so important. They bring young girls’ attention to the possibility of a career in engineering, not just at NATS but across the industry.”

Kathy McColl, Senior Systems Engineer, Research & Development, tells us a bit about her role and how the environment in NATS has suited her as an autistic woman.

Kathy with her family

“When people ask me to explain my job, I normally say that I do research into emerging technologies and concepts for air traffic management, focusing on new airspace users like drones. Then they usually ask me which airport I work at!”

“My main highlight at NATS must be working on reducing controlled airspace infringements by the general aviation community. With Airbox Aerospace, we designed and procured the first low-cost GPS sat nav designed for general aviation pilots, undercutting the competition by hundreds of pounds whilst introducing quality airspace mapping and safety features.  The project won numerous industry awards for NATS!”

Kathy has worked for NATS for 22 years, but no none compare to the last 12 months.

“As a team we’ve really pulled together over the past year, making an effort to get to know and accommodate each other, and I’m proud to be a part of it. We’ve adapted well to a new way of working, however our work is by nature very collaborative, so it has certainly been a challenge at times.”

In January 2020, Kathy was diagnosed with autism. She said: “My diagnosis has made sense of my life and allowed me to understand why I react as I do and identify what is important to me.

“Despite me not having an Autism diagnosis until 20 years into my career at NATS my colleagues were (and still are) supportive and understanding:  I felt welcomed and that I fitted right in, despite being in a minority, being a disabled female.  NATS, like most employers, has a way to go to be fully diverse but is willing to learn and improve in terms of diversity and that transition is hugely exciting to be a part of.

“NATS’ well developed engineering processes and structure really helped me to build my confidence in my role by providing a clear framework within which I could be confident.  There are plenty of different development opportunities and career choices to suit all personality and neurotypes as you gain confidence, skills and experience.”

Find out more about International Women in Engineering Day at https://www.inwed.org.uk/