Mary Drury

5 December, 2010

‘Me an engineer? That’s what grown-ups do!’

I was born in England in the late 60s into a comfortable university educated family with an English teacher mother and chemist father. I was the youngest of three and, I think for reasons of nature rather than nurture, was very slow to develop – this was in stark contrast to my elder brother who was considered to be exceptionally bright. At primary school, despite being a slow reader and complaints from my teachers that I ‘did nothing’, my parents did believe that there might be more going on in this serious child’s head and it is credit to their support in these early years that I eventually stopped watching and started doing.

My parents chose for me to attend the less prestigious secondary school, a different school to my siblings, because there was less streaming of abilities and so they believed I would have more chance of catching up. This worked for me and in my teens I developed a theoretical interest in and aptitude for maths and sciences.  However I lacked any practical confidence. My father tinkered with an old boat and did some DIY but I do not remember that he encouraged any of us to get involved. My mother was/is a self confessed technophobe – finding the tuning of the radio beyond her – and I felt myself to be like her.  I also found it difficult to conform at school and I think that one of my secrets for success later in a male dominated world is that, as often the only woman, I was no longer expected to conform. However, in the 6th form I floundered again as the only girl in the Physics class with a sarcastic male teacher and no class friends and eventually dropped out with glandular fever. I did however return the following year determined to prove to the teachers that I could do it and, much to their surprise, got good grades and a place at York University to study Theoretical Physics.

The real turning point for me was when I spent a life changing week at the Centre for Alternative Technology in North Wales.  The whole ethos of the place made me realise I wanted to do something useful and practical, but I also had an important conversation with the girlfriend of one of the volunteers who complained that she was not being allowed to learn how to use the lathe.  She believed that if she had been a man they would have let her use it but, because women are seen as inherently unpractical, she was not considered safe. She said that the problem was that most women don’t spend their childhood tinkering with cars both because they are not expected to and because they don’t believe they can.  Without knowing it she was talking about me and so shortly after I switched to the much more practical Engineering Design and Appropriate Technology course at the University of Warwick.

It came as quite a shock when I started the course and it fully sank in that I was now studying engineering, a rather practical course for a technophobe. There were only 15 students in my year – 3 of whom were women – with a high proportion of mature and foreign students who were also there because they wanted to do something useful and practical. We had a separate work/common room where we could share ideas and across all years, getting encouragement, help and inspiration from those further on in the course. It was here that I came to understood that a woman’s apparent lack of ability is so often lack of confidence, a natural assumption that she can’t where a man would assume he could.

I was so inspired by tales of others’ experiences in the field that, before my final year, I took an 8 month placement in rural Zimbabwe testing the manufacture and operation of pumps for small scale irrigations. In my childhood my father’s interest in Zimbabwean politics meant we had a series of refugees stay with us, opening a small window into a world outside; this fuelled my enthusiasm to visit that country. I had never been out of Europe before and so it was an enormously challenging time as I was on my own, both culturally and technically, with a practical task to complete and no-one but myself to do it.  I lived in a training centre where rural people (mostly women) came to learn practical skills, such as soap making and pig keeping, and I could see that small projects like mine could make a big difference to their lives. But it is a tribute to a man called Israel, who believed in both me and the project, that I realised I really could be an engineer.

I graduated with a First Class Engineering Degree, which was probably only important for the 4 weeks until I got my first job as a trainee engineer with a hydro turbine and pump manufacturer in the north of England. Engineering can be a very old fashioned environment and I discovered a number of months after I had started work that women were not allowed to wear trousers – no-one had had the courage to tell me! It was a small company but there was another female trainee engineer who complained bitterly that she was not taken seriously because she was a woman. I decided early on that the best way to gain respect was to be good at what I did and that my femaleness was just one attribute of who I am which could provide as many opportunities as problems in the working environment. I might be treated differently, but so might someone who was short, tall, black, fat, thin, pretty, ugly, wore glasses, had the wrong accent or simply didn’t fit in. I have built a career as an engineer in hydropower with many years spent designing, commissioning and troubleshooting the control systems, often having up to 16,000kW of power at my fingertips. I cannot recall feeling obstructed because of being a woman and I think there are a number of occasions where it may have assisted me because  my open co-operative approach could sometimes disarm otherwise difficult people.

The real obstacle was motherhood which came as a surprise because the problem came from within myself.  Apart from the practicalities, I no longer felt able to stay away for indefinite commissioning periods because of the physical ache of the separation from my children.   Is the glass ceiling perhaps sometimes self induced?  So I coasted for a number of years and considered giving up work. But someone has to earn the money so we made the family choice for me, the younger partner, to become the sole earner and a role model to our two girls while my husband focused on the childcare.

I am now a chartered engineer responsible for the construction of new hydro power stations, thus increasing the UK’s renewable energy capacity.  I had thought I might go back to Africa but my life did not lead me there and I have found enough that needs doing to help reduce the excesses of my own country. I am the only female Project Manager in my organisation – a surprising fact as I believe that women are natural organisers – but I never feel marginalised or discriminated against because of my gender. My work environment is dominated by men in the sometimes quite rough construction industry but it is a great job because it is so real and practical and I can see how I am making a difference. When I left school I very nearly took the wrong path because I did not have the confidence to believe I could actually contribute in such a practical way. I am so glad I changed my mind, though I do still sometime laugh at myself – ‘Me an engineer? That’s what grown-ups do!’

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2 Responses to “Mary Drury”

  1. Siobhan Says:

    How inspiring.

  2. Martin Wilkie Says:

    Well done Mary! You are an excellent role model for our daughters.


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