Professor Georgina Harris has enjoyed an international career in academia. She is currently the Dean of the STEM Faculty at Arden University.

Tell us a bit about yourself, background and your current role?

I am a lifelong engineer and academic and I truly enjoy helping other people to discover the joys of creativity and invention. I have travelled around the globe with my job, walked across deserts, flown a plane, driven 4×4 vehicles along rivers and even fired steam locomotives – what other type of job would give you these types of opportunities?

My current role at Arden University is the creation of our brand-new programmes in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). Across the country there are thousands of young people who are not getting the best opportunities to study these subjects at school. Many teachers and career guidance services lack the knowledge and expertise to guide young people towards a career in STEM. Consequently, there are many people who discover later that they have missed the opportunity to join a fantastic career. Our faculty aims to make these opportunities visible to young people and give access to those later-on in their careers who want to upskill or career change.

Did you ever sit down and plan your career? 

I have sat down and planned my career numerous times over the years. My initial aim was to be the lollipop man that stops the cars for their pit-stops at Formula One races which my dad wisely advised me was the chief engineer of the team. From this point on, I knew that engineering was the career for me. Now I needed experience of engineering industries to give me an advantage when applying for jobs so I diligently wrote off to companies in the hopes that they could offer me placements or work experience. Instead, my diligence paid off with paid work in a British and European Standards testing house, the rail industry and the nuclear industry. I discovered a world of new engineering technologies and techniques that I’d never come across before. I was working with world leaders in their field to develop new safety systems, new rail infrastructure and even upskilling colleagues with the latest computer-aided design systems. I found that my ideas, creativity and opinion were valued in these companies and I very quickly felt like a member of the team. I was no longer the outsider, the nerdy one in the group, I was amongst my people and I was enjoying every minute of it.

One critical incident made me stop and rethink my plan. I was working in the nuclear industry when the September 11 attacks happened. It is very difficult to explain to an audience younger than myself just what an enormous change this had on the world of engineering. This event changed how we thought about the worst-case scenario; instead of considering the sequence of events that could lead to the worst accident possible, we were now having to consider the worst deliberate action that could be taken. There were approximately 17,400 people in the World Trade Centre when the attack took place. Minoru Yamasaki’s design mean that approximately 14,800 people were able to be safely evacuated from the buildings before the twin towers collapsed; an incredible achievement considering the impact and heat that these buildings had to withstand and the fact that they were commissioned in 1962. My experience in these companies led me to reconsider the very narrow trajectory I had chosen for myself. I wanted to make the world and safer and a better place… and now I could see endless opportunities to do this.

Have you faced any career challenges along the way and how did you overcome these?

When I started out in my career, I certainly did not foresee any challenges. I loved mathematics, physics and computing and had always been fascinated by mechanisms and manufacturing. I relished the challenge of a problem to be solved, so it seemed completely natural to me to want to study engineering. Despite my early experience of engineering companies, it was not until I started at university that I first experienced the negative effects of unconscious bias. I never considered myself anything other than a student of engineering, so these experiences of gender bias came as something of a shock to me. I never suffered from a lack of role-models: my family was full of engineers and scientists. My family gave me nothing but encouragement so why should these strangers who do not know me feel that they have a right to any opinion on the matter?

Throughout my career, I have been fortunate to be supported by my amazing family. In addition, I have always been able to find a support group (both men and women) who have interests or hobbies in common. I owe a huge debt of gratitude to all of these wonderful people for their time, allyship, for acting as a sounding board when I had problems and for picking me up when things have been tough.

What has been your biggest career achievement to date?

I am very proud of all my work as an engineer and as an academic so it is almost impossible to choose only one.

  • As an engineer, I was responsible for the design and build of the first brand-new radio telescope to be sited at Jodrell Bank Observatory in over 40 years. This was a mid-frequency aperture array prototype for the Square Kilometre Array Telescope.
  • As an academic, every Graduation Day is a matter of enormous pride for me. I suspect that only teachers will ever understand just how emotional it is to see your students succeed and celebrate their achievements.

What one thing do you believe has been a major factor in your achieving success?  

Determination! Life is never easy or fair. As Einstein said, “You never fail until you stop trying.”

Never give up, never stop learning and always do your best. You will never know just how good you are until you really try.

What top tips would you give to an individual who is trying to excel in their career in technology?

Engineering and technology are disciplines riddled with acronyms and industry-specific jargon. I would recommend that you train yourself to avoid these and continue to speak plainly (it is not as easy as it sounds). Those in the know will not think any less of you for speaking in plain English and those who are not familiar with the jargon of the industry will be grateful to have had the information clearly explained. I would attribute a significant proportion of my success as having come from my ability to “translate” between STEM specialisms and support learners by communicating as clearly as I possibly can.

The use of acronyms and jargon can be used to bamboozle and consequently, I believe that is shows a far greater respect for your audience if you are able to explain as simply as possible; your audience will be very quick to tell you if your explanation is unnecessary and that you can move on, they are far less likely to be willing to admit when they are lost.

What barriers for women working in tech, are still to be overcome?

Sadly, the engineering world is still not perfect everywhere. There are still some pockets of industry that refuse to modernise and recognise the enormous value that women engineers can bring to a company; especially those industries who want to attract women customers. However, the current STEM skills shortage (most prevalent in the UK) does mean that it is very easy for a talented engineer to find another position. If your current employer is not providing you with an inclusive culture in which to work, then you can move to one that does!

What do you think companies can do to support and progress the careers of women working in technology?

The biggest step forward that I have seen during my lifetime in engineering has come from the use of mandatory “unconscious bias” and “upstander” training in companies. The unconscious bias course helps to explain why we all (male and female) have an inbuilt biological default setting to make snap decisions about people. Earlier on our evolution, the ability to determine quickly if someone was a friend or foe would have impacted on our survival as a species. Unfortunately, it is not easy to switch off this mechanism, especially if you are not consciously aware that you are using it. The training encourages you to check your own thinking, ensure that you have not made assumptions and to take a methodical approach, particularly when recruiting new staff. Upstander training gives some key tools and techniques for politely and supportively encouraging colleagues to modify their words or behaviour when we believe that it might be negatively impacting colleagues or ourselves.

I still believe that people are basically good but that they sometimes get things wrong. I think that giving people the opportunity to improve is the kindest and most generous thing that you can do for your colleagues.

In an ideal world, how would you improve gender diversity in tech?

In an ideal world, I wouldn’t have to, we would already have reached gender equality. The trick here is to move away from notions of engineering being about engines, cars, trains and planes. Whilst these appeal to some, these may be dissuading many others from joining the profession.

The word “engineering” comes from the Latin ingenium, meaning “cleverness” and ingeniare, meaning “to contrive, devise”. We are professional problems solvers of products, processes and systems; all with the aim of improving the world for those around us.

Making the world a better place is certainly a motivation that exists as much in women as it does in men. I believe that expressing what we do as profession in a way that more accurately represents our range of activities would appeal to a much wider audience, including women.

What resources do you recommend for women working in tech?

I am a member of the Engineering Professors’ Council which runs the Engineering Academic Network. This is an organisation set up to be the voice of the Engineering Academic Profession as well as being an amazing support network and provider of helpful resources for academics who want to progress their careers. I am also a member of several STEM professional bodies. Working within these communities gives you a strong network of people who can support with job opportunities, advice and guidance and most importantly friendship.