It’s a little-known fact that of the thousands of catering equipment service engineers operating in the UK and Ireland, only a tiny minority are female. To mark International Women’s Day, which was celebrated yesterday, three female technicians at Hobart describe why they have to work harder than their male counterparts to gain respect and what can be done to get more women into the engineering industry.
Lynn Donnachie, Rachel Murray and Erin Pinkerton are employed by Hobart Service and have several things in common: they are passionate, highly skilled engineers and yet each one has, at some point in their careers, had to face down misogyny and prejudgement simply because of their gender.
Based in the Irish Republic, Rachel Murray possesses a vast skillset, taking in not only catering equipment but refrigeration, electrics, mechanics, hydraulics, bio medical, IT and software engineering, as well as welding, joining and plumbing.
She is also a prolific inventor, with two patents currently pending. In pure experience terms, she could rival any of her male counterparts, yet on the job she has always had to battle against preconceptions.
“It happens an awful lot, there are many sites which I go into and you can just tell they are thrown off because they were expecting a guy. But you get used to dealing with people like that and it doesn’t take long for some of them to see the quality of your work, the rapport you build; but then other times you just grit your teeth and have to deal with it,” she says.
“It’s always been quite difficult to be taken seriously. But sometimes, once you have proven yourself – you’ve come in and stopped a service from going to the wall – I think you actually get a little bit more respect.
“People suddenly realise what kind of work ethic I have, what kind of skills I have, and then they are always quite happy to have me back. It’s the feeling of job satisfaction – of giving the best customer service you can – that’s what drives me on; what I love about the job.”
With 14 years in the Navy – as the only female engineer on a ship of men – Erin Pinkerton is more than used to being outnumbered.
As is common with many who swap the forces for civilian life, she initially found it jarring to go from the sanctuary of a large team to being out on her own.
Soon after, she joined Hobart Service and was immediately buoyed by both the problem-solving elements of the job and the satisfaction of getting kitchen operations across south west England back up and running. It hasn’t all been so straightforward.
“I’ve had a few run-ins with people thinking ‘oh, you’re here to fix my dishwasher? You’re going to fix my oven? Are you sure you know what you’re doing?’ But once you prove your worth, show them what you can do, I now have sites that I go into and they’re like, ‘Erin’s here to sort us out, she’ll get us up and running!’ – I get their respect, but I’ve definitely had to work hard to earn it.”
One run-in still sticks in Ms Pinkerton’s mind, however.
“I went to one kitchen where they flatly refused to have me on site because they had requested a service engineer and wouldn’t believe I was it. Hobart was brilliant about it, I reported them, and we don’t go there anymore.”
The fact that this incident took place only six months ago really brings home the challenge faced by the industry in changing perceptions around female engineers.
Thankfully, her daily experiences with customers are roundly positive: “I go to one site and the staff there are all female, so when I walk in a get a big cheer and a ‘yeah! The woman’s here to fix the problem!’. It’s nice, but it’s also great when the 50- or 60-year-old men question what you’re doing, and you go and show them your skills, then I tell them my forces background – all of a sudden you’ve got their respect.
“The attitudes you face are partly because of habit. These kitchens have traditionally always had a male engineer come in so initially when I turned up after replacing a one in the region, they were like ‘where’s our usual guy?’ and I just said ‘well I’m here now, if you want your machine sorted then I’ll be the one who’s doing it!’. That tends to be that.”
The attitudes you face are partly because of habit. These kitchens have traditionally always had a male engineer come in
Describing herself as “no wallflower” Scot Lynn Donnachie credits a thick skin developed during her years in the Navy as the best defence to any prejudgment.
Moreover, when she does visit a new kitchen, she says her presence is often treated as a novelty.
“You walk in and they say ‘oh, it’s a lassie – that’s fantastic!’ Even if there were any preconceptions when you walk in, it’s when you walk out after getting them back up and running, that they realise. It’s then all about the quality of your work.”
So, while attitudes to them may still be mixed, on the final, burning question: how to get more women into engineering? The trio are unanimous.
“We need to engage young women at school level, make them realise that this is a career, not just a fallback. It’s about problem solving and offers ultimate job satisfaction,” says Ms Murray.
Ms Donnachie agrees it would help if there was a firmer academic push: “We need to make more of apprenticeship schemes focusing firmly on the positives, of which there are so many. Only then will we begin to get fairer representation.”
Ms Pinkerton concludes: “It’s about going into schools, into colleges, and demonstrating to these people the benefits of a career in engineering. We are prime examples – but to shift perceptions for good we desperately need more.”