‘More than a career’: Dawn Bonfield in conversation with Coreen McGuire

by Coreen McGuire

Dawn Bonfield, MBE

‘there was nothing stopping me doing more and more and more’

The UK has the lowest percentage of female engineering professionals in Europe (11% according to the IET), something that organisations like the Women’s Engineering Society (WES) has been trying to change since 1919, when the women who worked as engineers in the First World War fought to retain their jobs.

Women can be put off from pursuing engineering at a young age, but it is also common to find women engineers who have been encouraged by their parents to pursue engineering. Engineer and campaigner Dawn Bonfield (MBE) who excelled at Maths and Science at school, tells me

My dad’s an engineer as well and one of the things that has been made clear in engineering is that female engineers often have a mother or, more likely father, who’s in engineering already. It was like a default for me, which is the opposite case for most women in engineering, it’s really not the default and it’s a barrier to get over that difficulty in choosing an engineering career. I think I was lucky in that there was no barrier at all, and it was straightforward.

Dawn was the only girl in the ‘Triple Maths’ group in her large mixed state school in South Wales and she continued to work in a male dominated environment when she went to Bath University, where she was the only one in the cohort to receive a First Class degree.

She began working as a material scientist for Citroen in France, and then moved to British Aerospace in Bristol. But when she took a career break to have children, she struggled to return to the engineering profession afterwards, which she describes as a ‘kind of tragedy that happens to a lot of women in engineering. They get to their career break and they don’t manage to find a way back into engineering, and I certainly didn’t. It was the thing that stopped my engineering career as a practicing engineer’.

Dawn found returning to work part-time especially difficult. She explains that it was hard ‘going back into a culture where I had gone from being on a proper career trajectory, and doing well, to coming back part-time and being absolutely left in some back room on a non-project’.

After having her third child, Dawn found it hard to imagine ‘for a minute that I would go back into engineering afterwards’. However, she started to realise that she was an engineer and would always be interested in the subject, even after having children she remained invested in engineering, and knew ‘it was more than a career’.  

Finding her way back

Dawn found her way back into engineering in part thanks to the backing of her father, who gave her the support to pay the registration for her chartered engineer status whilst she was on her career break. At the same time, Dawn started to volunteer with the Institution of Materials, Minerals, and Mining (IOM3) so that she could attend their conference free of charge.

Dawn explains that women on career breaks struggle to retain their ties with engineering, and ‘are not being supported by anyone else in engineering, and the engineering institutions are really their last port of call’. Whilst at the WES Dawn worked with the Royal Academy of Engineering and other engineering institutions to address this situation. WES now supports initiatives that attempt to intervene in this situation, such as STEM Returners.

This is no doubt due to the influence of Dawn’s time working at WES, where she was formerly President and Chief Executive. She was initially recommended to WES by the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET).

The Women’s Engineering Society did not have an office manager when Dawn arrived at the charity, which meant there was nobody living locally to do any administrative work. Dawn describes starting to work with just ‘a desk’. And ‘on this desk there was a pile of mail’.

Dawn describes the ‘really strange feeling of going into a desk, where there was no one to say what I could and couldn’t do —there was nothing stopping me doing more and more and more’. The first thing she did was organise the workspace, and she speaks with evident enjoyment about this time, in, ‘taking real pleasure in thinking, I can buy all of these files and get things really sorted out in here!’

During her time with WES, she organised the first national Women in Engineering Day in 2014. This is now a huge, internationally celebrated event but Dawn describes it being ‘such hard work that first year’. She recalls bringing her children into the office with her to help her to staple resource packs together and being ‘on the phone to the Daily Telegraph with the phone in one hand and stapling together these resource packs with the other hand’.

She laughs as she remembers ‘saying to this guy at the Telegraph, you know, we don’t get any money, we’re doing all of this work in support of women in engineering and nobody will give us money for anything’. However, she fondly reminisces about that time, as being ‘so intense —but then it all paying off, actually, that’s my best memory’.

Dealing with pushback through promoting inclusivity

Dawn recalls this work as being hugely rewarding but I am curious about how she dealt with pushback. She tells me that

In any kind of change movement, things will start out quite well but then you will get a dip and you will get pushback from people… Sometimes it feels as if you’re not just going back to the start but you’re going back before the start, even, and you’re even having to justify why you’re even there and trying to do this. And if that happens to you too often, you can just get to the point of complete weariness of it.

One of the ways that Dawn has managed to combat that kind of resistance has been to try to bring together diverse under-represented groups in collective action to promote inclusivity in engineering. She explains that promoting gender diversity is not just about promoting women, but rather about promoting myriad identities and ways of thinking.

Her passion for promoting inclusive design has brought her back into engineering. She explains that

[Engineers] might tell you that they also want to increase the number of women in engineering… but it’s not within their capability on a day-to-day basis because they are engineers. So if you can show them how they may be building disadvantages and biases into their engineering products and services and solutions and the built environment then they actually do care about that, and there is something that they can do about that.

Her website IncEng explains how bias and discrimination is being built into technology and shows examples, like soap dispensers that don’t work if your hand is black.

I ask whether this more intersectional approach has to do with her own experience in engineering, which struck me as being revealing of financial barriers and class discrimination as much as gender issues. Dawn speaks frankly about the extent to which her later career was only possible because of the financial support of her husband:

I’m one hundred percent sure that if I had to get a job which paid money, I would have got a job somewhere else, not in engineering, and that would have been the end of that―but I was able to do what I did, and to volunteer for conferences. And I would have not done that if my husband hadn’t been supportive, but he is the most supportive person in terms of wanting more diversity and inclusion in everything he does.

Telling stories for the whole world

Although her husband also has an engineering background, Dawn is keen to promote interdisciplinary work to help engineers understand sustainable development and how it interacts with gender. ‘We really need a better way of bringing the social sciences together with engineering and allowing the two disciplines to talk in the same language’.

For this reason, she is especially excited about working on the history of women in engineering and using stories from the past to shape engineering’s future. Dawn explains that

We weren’t telling stories enough. Or where there were stories to tell we just weren’t telling those stories properly. I just think the history is fascinating and I think we could use it a lot more than we do. I looked round [museums] and realised there were lots of information about the technology but very little about the people behind the technology and I just thought we’re missing a trick really because we could be widening the access really massively by not taking anything away from the engineering that we’ve got there but just adding to it.

For Dawn, one of the most important things about the history of WES is that they’ve never ‘shied away from campaigning for improvements to the lives of women’. Dawn regrets that ‘we’ve largely lost that gender identity in engineering these days’. She tells me that ‘if you talk to women in engineering now, they will very often not want to own their gender identity so they don’t want be seen as a woman in engineering, they want to be seen as an engineer’.

I ask about the extent to which this also mirrors ingrained misogyny and the enforcement of rigid gender norms which means prioritising behaviours and attitudes coded as masculine. Dawn replies

That’s exactly what you are having to do so you are losing seeing the diversity that you could be bringing into the sector. We talk about diversity as a sector whereas, actually, we are still a homogenous sector because everybody is being socialised to think in the same way. And if you think in a different way you will be put down by people.

It’s not just women. Everybody needs to be able to bring their identity into the engineering sector without conflict. When I hear people say no I don’t want to be seen as a woman that just kind of reiterates to me the fact that we’re not there yet, we need to be able to say no I am a woman and I’m going to represent who I am, whether it’s a woman, or whether it’s someone with a disability or whatever it is.

We have to be able to speak to that identity, and then create engineering that mirrors these different experiences because we don’t want engineers who are only able to speak for one perspective, we have to be speaking for the whole world.

To find out more about Dawn’s work, look to her website. I also recommend reading her fascinating memoir chapter in the book Rising to the Top.