RHEA Group has 600 staff in 11 countries, including women at all levels within and across the company. Nicola Mann and Consuelo Colabuono, who are at different stages in their careers, recount why they chose to become engineers and offer advice for others considering working in the space and security sectors.
Nicola Mann, Head of Professional Engineering Services
Degree in Mechanical Engineering, Birmingham City University; working at RHEA since 2006.
In the world of work, as a female engineer you certainly stand out, but this has opened doors that enabled me to grow in my career very quickly.
Engineering is such a wide domain and incredibly diverse in where it can lead you. Engineering can be very fulfilling; it impacts people, communities, the environment and beyond! It can take you on the journey of a lifetime, opening doors that you never knew existed.
What made you choose a career in engineering?
I fell into it rather by chance. I didn’t do as well as I should have in my exams at 18, so I had to reconsider my choices. Unfortunately, engineering was never discussed at school or recommended as a future career. But many engineering courses were still available and at school I enjoyed applied maths, and the more I read about the courses the more I felt this was the right choice for me.
I haven’t followed a traditional career in engineering because early in my career I found my talent and passion was more around human behaviour, with a focus on man–machine interaction but within the engineering industry. However, my education has given me a great advantage and the knowledge needed to work in various engineering sectors. My work has given me the opportunity to work in the UK, US and Europe, travelling around the world to work on different projects, meeting brilliant people and learning with every experience.
How have you found it being a woman in a male-dominated industry?
It has never felt like a barrier for me. Since choosing to study physics and maths I have always been in the minority; in fact, by the end of my degree, I was the only woman on the course. Of course you receive comments and a certain minority like to test you, but in general I have been well supported by colleagues and team mates. In the world of work, as a female engineer you certainly stand out, for good or for bad, but this has opened doors that enabled me to grow in my career very quickly. I was, however, very conscious I didn’t want to be a statistic, so I always had a sense that I needed to work harder and be better.
We instinctively think it must be hard being a female in an engineering environment, but if you go into it with a positive mindset, I find in general people are very supportive. Part of my career was in production sites for the steel industry and 80% of the time I worked on the shop floor. Being a traditional industry and 99% male, I was a little curious in the beginning to see how I was going to be accepted. Initially I was greeted with a sense of amusement, but I proved my capability and that I had a good sense of humour, and this ended up being one of my best experiences!
Since joining RHEA and discovering the space industry, I have discovered a new and fascinating world, finding incredible talent and amazing people, including many brilliant women engineers and scientists. I have been lucky enough to grow with the company, always being supported and encouraged by the leaders of RHEA. I now manage the professional engineering services division, which has 380 engineers and scientists working across Europe.
What advice would you give to a woman considering a career in engineering?
Be confident in your abilities. In general, I think women tend to be very hard on themselves, thinking of their weaknesses rather than their strengths. Use your intelligence and emotional sense to navigate through situations and find a sponsor who supports you in the organization. I always looked to senior female leaders to learn from, but I also benefitted from having several very strong bosses who encouraged and promoted me in my career.
Engineering is such a wide domain and incredibly diverse in where it can lead you. Engineering can be very fulfilling; it impacts people, communities, the environment and beyond! It can take you on the journey of a lifetime, opening doors that you never knew existed, as was the case for me. I’ve eaten beans and rice sitting in a canteen of a factory in Sao Paulo talking about safety culture, driven test vehicles (Mustangs) in Detroit and shaken hands with an astronaut who told me about the smell of the International Space Station. I could never have imagined such experiences when deciding to study mechanical engineering at the age of 18.
My main advice would be to believe in yourself, follow what you want and learn from your experiences. Engineering is an amazing career; one that is possible with a family and is very fulfilling.
Consuelo Colabuono, Cybersecurity and Privacy Analyst
Degree in IT and Master’s Degree in Network and Security, Sapienza Università di Roma; working at RHEA since 2018
I think women can leverage their emotional intelligence, which in general is more developed, and their sensitivity, to come up with truly out-of-the-box ideas and solutions. And then as managers, having this emotional intelligence along with soft skills is important, not just technical knowledge.
By combining these attributes with curiosity and creativity, women can achieve a lot.
What made you choose a career in security?
At high school I was focussing on studying languages, but my professor suggested I look instead at courses that exploited my analytical skills. They encouraged me to be more confident and open-minded about trying something different.
Then, while doing my first degree, I was looking for a career that combined logic, creativity and having an impact on everyday life. A course in my final year led me to become fascinated by cybersecurity and risk, which is universal to every industry.
Has it been difficult being a woman in a male-dominated industry?
I haven’t found being a female a problem – instead it was my age. I perceived that people doubted my abilities because I was young. However, at RHEA it was different as they saw this as potential to grow.
When I arrived at RHEA, my self-esteem was quite low, but my colleagues and manager supported me, making me feel more confident and comfortable to express myself, which encourages me to give my best to the company.
What advice would you give to a woman considering a career in security?
In general, if you are not enjoying what you are studying or it is too much of a struggle, consider changing direction. But if you finish your studies, choose what you are most passionate about, not what’s in vogue at the time.
My impression is that it is less of an issue to be a woman in a multicultural organization operating in a European context, like RHEA. But it is important to look for a company that will allow you to bloom.
There will always be more men than women in these sectors, for various reasons. But I think women can leverage their emotional intelligence, which in general is more developed, and their sensitivity, to come up with truly out-of-the-box ideas and solutions. And then as managers, having this emotional intelligence along with soft skills is important, not just technical knowledge.
By combining these attributes with curiosity and creativity, women can achieve a lot. And if more companies adopt smart, flexible working practices after the pandemic, I think there will be more opportunities for women and then everyone will benefit.