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Women’s Engineering Society CEO shares her OU journey

The Women’s Engineering Society celebrates their centenary on June 23rd 2019; International Women in Engineering Day. Elizabeth Donnelly, Chief Executive, is an Open University graduate, receiving both an Bachelors degree and, more recently, a Masters. She told us of her OU journey, and her desire to increase the numbers of women in science and engineering.

“I was fortunate because my secondary school in Norwich had been an all-girls’ school until a couple of years before I attended. They had built a brand new science block; my science teachers were all women who were used to girls being good at science, and there were only about five or six boys in the class.

I remember loving Biology, possibly because my teacher was also my form teacher, the very formidable Mrs Bradley. Chemistry was great until we studied Organic Chemistry and then I was lost among the carbon and hydrogen molecules. Physics was really interesting. I was fascinated by prisms and light. We were even allowed to test radioactivity with small bits of radioactive metal, kept in the basement safe, though I’m not sure that would be allowed nowadays!

Calculus and algebra like ‘works of art’

A computer club was set up at school in 1983 but I stood in the doorway all of break time. The boys who were there and the male teacher never once looked up and saw me, let alone invited me in, so I never went again. I loved Maths and went on to study Statistics at A Level, where calculus and advanced algebra were like works of art to me.

Despite my mathematical ability and love of science, I went to a traditional university in 1987 to study Law. I failed a module in Trusts by 3% and retook it, this time failing by 4%. The Law was obviously not suited to me.

I went to work in a lot of administrative roles. When I moved into a company where there was no IT support, I helped colleagues out with their computers. Then, in 1995, I installed the internet and email across the business. This led to an IT role with a pharmaceutical company and eventually led to me being a software developer and database administrator, installing massive financial databases for local authorities.

By chance I became good friends with an Associate Lecturer from The Open University, and then with two people who were senior OU staff developing courses. They encouraged me to return to university and study whatever I wanted. So, in 2003, I was able to transfer the credit from my unfinished Law degree to the OU, and chose to study for a Certificate in Web Application Development. All the credit was transferred without grades, so I was marked only on my OU work and not dragged down by my poor marks in Law.

“It changed my life”

After the certificate, I then studied Databases and excelled, and finally chose Systems Thinking: Managing Complexity. It changed my life. I had expected a course on IT systems, but was instead introduced to Systems Thinking, a subset of Systems Engineering, and I was able to master modelling and systems methodologies to devise strategies in any field I wanted. I graduated with first class honours in 2007.

By then I had the OU bug, so then I studied for a Diploma in Economics, dabbled in modules in French and ten years after I first started with the OU, I began my MSc – Systems Thinking in Practice, and I graduated with Merit in 2018.

Coincidentally I started working in aerospace while I was first studying with the OU. The Systems Thinking course helped me devise a major UK investment strategy for Rolls-Royce, secure assurances about regional governance while a Non-Executive Director for the East Midlands Development Agency and develop a programme to retrain engineers when jobs were cut in manufacturing, while working at an aerospace trade association.

As part of my MSc, I worked with some UK charities on their governance and communities of practice, which gave me the expertise required to be appointed as the Women’s Engineering Society’s Chief Executive Officer in August 2018.

The Women’s Engineering Society

WES was formed in 1919 to promote the education of women in engineering and educate the public about women in engineering. A century later, we’re still doing that, while also celebrating our Centenary.

We support women over 18 to stay in engineering, whether as apprentices or students into their early career, to progress from early career to management, to support women returning after a career break, and to progress to senior management and the boardroom. We have nearly 60 partners, including universities, not for profit organisations as well as companies.

“Engineering is a great career for women”

We’re all striving to encourage more women to be engineers. Companies are crying out for new engineers and want more women to join them. Engineering is all about problem-solving and finding creative solutions, so it’s a great career for women who are good at both these things.

I want girls to enjoy the excitement of learning new things and the satisfaction of working at a problem and getting a solution.

Nowadays the problems I face are to do with running a charity, but it brings me into contact with so many brilliant women engineers. I’m looking forward to more women and girls joining the profession.”

About Author

Liz works in the Media Relations team within the Communications Unit at The Open University. She has over 15 years' marketing experience working across a range of sectors, from diamonds to shampoo. She has a BSc (Hons) in Management from UMIST. In her spare time, Liz is usually found on roller skates or off travelling, having adventures.

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