International Women in Engineering Day is marked annually on 23 June to celebrate the exceptional contribution women have made to the profession. The engineering and technology field still has much to do to attain gender balance – only 12% of the UK’s engineering workforce are women (Women in Engineering Society) and only 31% of UK tech jobs are held by women (Office of National Statistics, February 2020). Whilst both statistics show a small improvement from previous years, they also demonstrate that women are still underrepresented in a field that will play an increasing role in shaping our future – from solving global challenges to driving technological advances in all parts of our lives. The UK engineering workforce should reflect the society it serves, and the business benefits of diversity cannot continue to be ignored.
People tend to like and associate with people who reflect themselves – that’s part of why we need to have more women role models to lead change. For this year’s celebrations we’re spotlighting three women startup leaders at different stages of their entrepreneurial journeys, sharing their successes, challenges, and their words of wisdom for future generations.
Dr Melissa Berthelot is the CEO and co-founder of Warner Patch, a medical technology spinout that specialises in mobile health – her patch device allows clinicians to monitor patients remotely, which frees up space in hospitals. Melissa completed the Enterprise Fellowships programme in 2021 and is in the early stages of growing her company.
What made you decide to pursue a career in engineering?
I don’t think that I actively pursued an engineering career, especially since there are so many types and specialities within engineering - how on earth could I decide? Fortunately, I just fell into it. In my case, since I was a kid, I’ve always been creative, making design plans and building things. If there was something to fix, I would try to.
Embedded systems engineering has always been very exciting to me, as it combines both electronic and software engineering working in synergy in a system. Electronics is the first point of any digital solution, and dependent on the software application, the design optimisation can be very different – there are a multitude of suitable solutions, which is where creativity comes into it!
Attitudes towards gender stereotypes are improving. So why do you think the gender disparity in the engineering profession is still so great?
It is difficult to be a woman within the engineering profession. In my opinion, we are still due to experience a shift in unconscious bias in society. More means must be put in place to call out on these biases, especially when it happens in teams/groups - everybody should feel a duty to ensure the working environment is inclusive for everyone.
You went from being an academic to a startup leader – what was most challenging about the transition?
Mentally shifting from academia to business was a challenge: the main difference is that the research project is now a business that must be profitable (at some point) and scalable to survive - regardless of the the positive social impact of your innovation. As such, it is vital to be out there to discuss and be challenged by experts in the field and the potential future customers. In my case, it is still sometimes scary, disappointing, and discouraging, but then I realised that is the best way to find a team, and true suitable advocates and advisors.
The theme for this year’s International Women in Engineering Day is all about #EngineeringHeroes. Do you have a woman role model who has inspired you through your own entrepreneurial journey?
It sounds like a cliché but I would have to say my mother. She is not an engineer, but worked hard and made sacrifices for my brother and I to give us the opportunity to be who we wanted to become. Growing up, I took this for granted but now I really appreciate it. Being an entrepreneur requires strong work ethic, commitment and consistency, even in the pain and uncertainty – that’s a lesson she showed me.
As an early-stage engineering entrepreneur and startup leader, do you have any advice for those considering making the leap from academia to business?
In my experience, being in academia is working on research that could be used in 20 to30 years to radically improve the way we live or do something. Being in a startup is like taking a leap of faith to convince others that the research can be used in 5 to10 years and that it will gradually increase in impact in the years to come (maybe in 20-30years!) There will be scepticism and disagreements, but one thing I’ve learnt is that the old fashioned way of doing things can be bypassed. I don’t have specific advice, other than to give yourself permission to believe you can do it– and that failure is part of success.
What do you see as the most powerful actions engineering leaders/startups can take to help address the profession’s gender imbalance?
In STEM, I think more discussions about what the job really is would help in demystifying the concept, so that the next generation of women would be inspired rather to break the mould instead of thinking “I don’t think I can do it”. To put it simply, being an engineer is about being creative in finding a solution to a problem, which everyone does at some point in life! The beauty of it is that it occurs across all sectors, from fashion to automotive industries, gardening to energy, music to astronomy!