Natasha Carpenter, an award-winning Vodafone engineer, reflects on how to attract more women in to the industry and shares her experiences of keeping the UK connected during the coronavirus pandemic.
When Natasha Carpenter looks back 11 years to when she was a legal secretary, she can’t believe how far she has come in that time.
Now she’s a winner of the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET) Young Woman Engineer of the Year special recognition award, and also a recipient of a special recognition reward from Vodafone.
As an experienced engineer specialising in fixed-lined telephony for commercial customers, she and her colleagues have been keeping UK businesses connected during the coronavirus pandemic.
It was applying for a Cable & Wireless (now part of Vodafone) apprenticeship that changed her life.
“I was just doing the same thing every day as a secretary, but this apprenticeship looked really interesting. I didn’t know anything about telecoms but I was interested in technology and how things worked,” she tells Vodafone UK News.
Careers advice at her school in Essex pushed her towards office work, says Natasha, based on a sexist assumption that “girls didn’t really do this kind of stuff”.
She admits that her line of work is still very male-dominated, which is why she’s so keen to spread the message – particularly to girls – that “no matter what you look like, your race, your gender, you can be an engineer if you want to”.
I want to show people what the future could look like…it’s exciting!
Initially, customers couldn’t believe she was the engineer when Natasha turned up to a job.
“They didn’t have much confidence in me at first,” she says. “It was a bit discouraging – but you just had to keep going and ignore what they said.”
Thankfully, attitudes have changed over the last decade, due in part to the efforts of pioneers like Natasha getting out there, doing the job, and spreading the message in schools, workplaces and conferences.
“Now they’re far more welcoming and encouraging,” she says. “There’s been a shift in mentality – now people say it’s nice to see a female engineer.”
And Natasha is keen to stress that her Vodafone colleagues “have always been very helpful and supportive”.
Natasha testing a 10 gigabit ethernet connection for a banking customer – keeping the UK connected
The apprenticeship gave her the opportunity to learn about electronics, telecoms, maths, and health & safety, she says, and all about the other equipment manufacturers, such as Cisco, Juniper, and Marconi, and where their kit fitted in to the complex network.
Natasha learned her trade in and around London, practising on training networks laced with deliberately engineered faults, she says. Then after Vodafone acquired Cable & Wireless in 2012, “things got really busy”.
“What I love about the job is that you’re not just installing kit, you’re maintaining it as well. And you’re meeting customers almost every day. There’s always variety, something new.”
Life under Covid-19
Of course, the coronavirus pandemic has necessitated many changes to working practices.
“We have to wear PPE [personal protective equipment], use hand gel, and anti-bacterial wipes,” Natasha explains, “and we’ve reduced the number of people visiting network sites at the same time to adhere to government guidelines.”
Lockdown has also changed home life, with her 14-year-old son, Javon, having to carry on his education at home with the help of her dad and brother while she and her partner go to work.
So does she get lonely out on the road, often working by herself?
“I’m quite happy in my own company,” she says. “You used to see customers and chat to them, but at the moment we’re only doing critical work so we don’t see as many people as usual.
“But you’ve always got someone to talk to on the phone when you want to.”
And Natasha is particularly proud of the role engineers have played in keeping the UK connected during the pandemic.
“If you hadn’t had people like us going out there your phone or broadband wouldn’t have worked. The NHS workers are heroes, of course, but we’re heroes, too,” Natasha concludes.
Fortunately, Natasha says she hasn’t received any personal abuse from anti-5G protestors or 5G coronavirus conspiracy theorists as she’s gone about her work, but she’s glad to have had Vodafone’s lone worker app to hand, with its movement detection, two-hour check-ins and panic button facilities.
When she’s not installing network routers and switches, or connecting businesses to the cloud, Natasha is learning about the mobile side of the business, too.
“It’s always good to add to your skill-set and keep yourself constantly fresh,” she reflects.
Creating the future
With just one more female Vodafone engineer in the London region where Natasha works, progress in attracting women to these roles is not as fast as she would like, she admits, but she’s pleased to see more women coming through the apprenticeship programme.
“People think they know what an engineer looks like, but they don’t. This is why I do speeches in schools and colleges and challenge the prejudices of the people I talk to.”
Natasha is a member of the IET and STEM.org.uk, an organisation supporting learning in science, technology, engineering and maths. She is regularly invited to speak in schools, colleges, at conferences and seminars.
“We need more people like me changing perceptions,” says Natasha. “I want to show people what the future could look like, a future that they could help create using technologies that haven’t even been invented yet. It’s exciting!”
“In five or 10 years we might be using 6G, watching hologram TV, or buzzing around in flying taxis – all of these technologies will need fast connectivity to work.
“And people like us to install it.”
'You don’t have to be a man to hold a screwdriver': busy times for Britain's female telecom engineers
The pandemic placed unprecedented pressure on the UK’s telecommunication system. Here we meet some of the women workers helping to keep Britain connected, and hear why the sector needs better gender representation
Telecoms engineer Natasha Carpenter: ‘Under lockdown, it was all about increasing capacity’
Lockdown has placed a huge strain on the country’s telecoms infrastructure. As offices closed, face-to-face meetings with colleagues and clients were replaced by bandwidth-hungry video conferencing.
The burden on the country’s internet was so severe, video streamers, including Netflix and Amazon Prime, dialled down quality from high to standard definition. Around the world, virtual meeting app Zoom went from around 56,000 downloads a day to 2.1m on 23 March, the day lockdown was announced in the UK.
Telecoms companies had to be primed to repair, update and improve telephone, mobile and internet infrastructure to help Britain cope with a massive increase in demand. While the mind might instantly conjure up images of men in vans climbing poles and lifting manhole covers, the reality is a number of those who kept Britain talking and Zooming were women.
One was Anita Josephs, trainee fibre engineer with BT-owned Openreach. She switched to her current job a year ago seeking a change in career after several years working in an office. Within a year she was proud to be called a keyworker as the government acknowledged the vital role telecoms engineers play in keeping the country’s communications infrastructure working.
“It was a great feeling to be going out and putting fibre into schools so the kids there had great wifi,” she says. “It also allowed teachers to stream lessons to school kids at home without any buffering or lag. We did the same for several doctor surgeries who needed better connection for consultations over Skype.”
It was not just schools and medical facilities that needed help in handling the switch to video communications. Natasha Carpenter was one of an army of telecoms engineers putting in “bigger pipes” for Vodafone, which works with a range of customers including the NHS 111 line, Microsoft, Nintendo and 19 of the country’s top 20 e-commerce sites. She left a “boring” admin job in an office 12 years ago to train as a telecoms engineer and now loves the challenge of every day being busy, and different.
“We have to be adaptable to customer needs and under lockdown it was all about increasing capacity,” she says.
“We were going in and replacing 1 gigabyte cables with 10 gigabyte connections. It means someone like NHS 111 could handle all those extra calls, e-commerce sites could deal with a spike in orders and businesses could handle people setting up so many video meetings. Although most video calls were being made at home, there were still a lot going through companies’ virtual private networks, so businesses needed a lot of extra capacity.”
Nicole Curran, an engineer with UK Connect, says she was encouraged to take academic subjects at school, rather than the more practical options she preferred.
The public would have been aware that organisations needed more bandwidth under lockdown, particularly in health, entertainment and e-commerce. However, what might not have been so obvious was the army needed improved communications to help with its Covid-19 response.
Certainly Nicole Curran, an engineer with UK Connect, was unaware until one of her first assignments with the company took her to an army base. Normally, the role involves erecting 4G antennas to build a broadband network for building sites that do not yet have a fixed line. However, under lockdown her services were required to get broadband to a rural Ministry of Defence base in Lancashire.
“They needed to look at video content for training but, for morale, they also needed reservists to be connected with loved ones back home, just like everyone else during lockdown,” she says.
Curran originally trained as an apprentice with Virgin Media where there were only two women out of an intake of 20. She found the job after leaving college just before taking her A-levels. Her school had encouraged her to take academic subjects, rather than the more practical options she preferred.
Hence Curran is a firm advocate for girls receiving as much information and encouragement as possible about technology and engineering apprenticeships so gender perception can be tackled.
“I think it’s getting better, but people still tend to think of engineering jobs as male,” she says.
“I’ve no idea why, you don’t have to be a man to hold a screwdriver. When I turn up or call ahead on a job, people are really surprised a woman’s coming out to their site. A guy at a petrol station recently asked me to double check which pump I’d used because I was asking to pay for fuel at a pump next to a van with a ladder on top.”
Government figures show there is still a long way to go until these traditional stereotypes are seriously challenged. While there is encouraging news that there is a 50-50 gender split in all apprenticeships started in 2019, this equilibrium appears far off in Stem industries. In the same starting year, according to the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education, just 9% of manufacturing and engineering apprentices were women, up from 8% in 2018. With degree-level engineering apprenticeships in engineering and manufacturing, female representation rose from 14% in 2018 to just 16% in 2019.
Commenting on low numbers in manufacturing and engineering, Jennifer Coupland, chief executive of the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education, said: “Half of all apprentices are women, but there is stubbornly low representation in apprenticeships serving some areas of Stem, which broadly mirrors the gender split in the wider workforce.
“We know from working with our employer groups and professional bodies that there is genuine commitment to creating a more gender balanced workforce across Stem.”
Indeed figures from campaign group, Wise, suggest that the proportion of women working in the engineering industry has doubled between 2009 and 2019, but only from 5.8% to 10.3%. The organisation is hopeful that a rise in the proportion of women in boardrooms, in Stem and non-Stem industries, will help. In 2011 just 12.5% of FTSE 100 board positions were held by womenbut in 2019 this had risen to 32.4%.
While it is important to address the gender imbalance for school and college leavers, Wise is calling on companies to go the extra mile. With so many redundancies expected before the end of the year, now is the perfect time, it believes, to step up retraining programmes. It points to initiatives run by companies including Sky, BBC and Lloyds bank, among others, which are set up to help women switch to a career in technology and engineering.
These will prove crucial in getting the country back to work and achieving a better gender balance in industries typically dominated by men.