International Women’s Day: Celebrating Engineer Karen Matthews
International Women’s Day is a global day for celebrating women’s achievements, recognising the challenges, and placing more emphasis on accelerating gender parity. Women have overcome insurmountable odds to achieve greatness in social, economic, cultural, and political spheres. The 8 March celebration is an excellent opportunity to showcase the strides that women have made, especially in male-dominated fields.
For the year 2023, we would like to celebrate Karen Matthews.
A female engineer making her mark in the plumbing and heating industry. She dared to follow her passion. We hope that by sharing her story, we can inspire you to follow yours.
Let’s learn more about her.
Who Is Karen Matthews?
Karen Mathews hails from Leeds, “oop North” West Yorkshire. Her illustrious career in the plumbing and heating industry spans 15 years.
Since childhood, Karen has always loved to work with her hands. By the time she was leaving her family home, she had a bigger toolkit than her dad!
Her beginnings, however, would see her work in the advertising industry for 20 years as a desktop punisher, trainer, customer liaison, and staff manager. In 2005, she felt she had learnt everything in her role, and it was time to try out a new hobby or interest beyond her normal activities. Learning Spanish and drawing were huge contenders, but her desire to refit her home bathroom competently made her pick a basic plumbing course and start her Level 1 plumbing evening classes at the Leeds College of Building.
After the first year, and upon the college’s request, she continued her studies and completed her formal qualifications. She figured it was a good fallback plan if she ever resigned from her publishing job. Taking advantage of the funding available for mature students, Karen signed up for an NVQ Plumbing Course and specialised in ACS gas training.
Entry Into the Engineering Industry
In 2008, she left the advertising company as part of a voluntary redundancy program and fully immersed herself in the plumbing industry. Taking the industry by the horns, Karen started her company Damselfly and worked in and around the Leeds area, installing, servicing, and maintaining heating and hot water systems. She also installed bathrooms and kitchens and provided other general plumbing services while taking on freelance advertising work to help cushion her transition.
When she joined the field, she found very few women in engineering. It was considered a rare novelty for customers to meet a woman doing what had historically been seen as a man’s job. Although still a rare breed, she’s happy that nowadays, the number of women taking up the mantle in the heating and plumbing industry is steadily growing.
The engineering industry has indeed seen more women joining and succeeding at their craft. According to Engineering UK, women comprise 16.5% of all engineers compared to 10.5% in 2010. This represents a 6-percentage point increase in the proportion of women in the engineering workforce.
The number of women in engineering-related roles, including gas engineers, has increased from 562,000 in 2010 to 936,000 in 2021, with the overall engineering workforce rising from 5.3 million in 2010 to 5.6 million in 2021. Interestingly, the number of women in engineering roles rose even during the COVID pandemic, during which the total number of workers in the sector fell. These favourable rates show a great awakening among women who have decided to beat the odds and make an indelible mark in the engineering industry.
Her Career Scales New Heights
Fast forward to 2018, while attending a Vaillant training course, Karen met Grant, who had a similar business in Horsforth just a few miles from her office. They discovered their similar passion for high-quality workmanship and customer service through their chats over a couple of months. They later merged their businesses to form the Mayfly Group Ltd.
The company now specialises in larger domestic properties with more complex heating and hot water systems. However, their bread and butter still revolves around installing, repairing, and maintaining heating and hot water systems in average homes. Their operations are generally around the Leeds area, but they do travel up to Bishop Auckland and Brigg in Lincolnshire for long-standing customers that have relocated. The duo have just completed their heat pump training and look forward to their first independent installation in Denholme.
Mayfly Group Ltd won several top accolades, including the regional Energy Efficiency Awards in 2021, three consecutive regional titles in the Heating Installer Awards from 2019 to 2021, and a national title in 2021!
Sexism in the Engineering Industry
International Women’s Day celebrates the strides that women have made but also draws attention to the challenges in various sectors. Sadly, for Karen, sexism is a major challenge she has to contend with in her line of work.
“Oh, you’re a woman!” is a phrase she is all too familiar with, so much so that if she got a pound for every time it occurred, she would have retired by now. Many people are curious why she chose to join an industry considered a preserve for men.
Strikingly, she also experiences sexism from some unexpected quarters. Women in a certain age bracket tend to question her capacity to complete the job. Sometimes, she walks away, especially if she realises the clients are looking forward to her failure.
Sometimes her business partner, Grant, witnesses it first-hand when they attend a call together. However, most of her clients don’t question her abilities or are pleasantly surprised if they have any reservations. Whichever case it may be, she has learnt to accept people's different perceptions even though she’s aware that her gender does not correlate to her work competencies. She hopes that in the future, as more women stick their heads above the parapet, their ability will take precedence over their gender.
Exciting Trends in the Engineering Industry
According to Karen, it’s a fascinating time in the engineering industry. Some of the exciting things taking place include the shift towards low-carbon technologies. To meet net-zero emissions by 2050, the UK government is facilitating a higher intake of low-carbon heating systems in homes and small non-domestic buildings in England and Wales. The increased investment in hydrogen production, the invention of renewable technologies, and optimised system design offer exciting opportunities for female engineers to learn and grow their careers.
Inspiration to Young Women Looking to Enter the Engineering Industry
Ensuring that engineering is an attractive career choice for the next generation of young women is one of the best ways to increase the number of female engineers in the country. With close to 370,000 more women in engineering roles in 2021 compared to 2011 and much-needed inspiration from trailblazers like Karen Matthews, it’s the best time for any young woman aspiring to become an engineer to get started.
She believes there is no reason a woman who puts her mind to it can’t build a career! She does, though, have an important piece of advice for young women considering this industry: "Make sure you cultivate a thick skin along with your training to fend off the few remaining stragglers of a not quite forgotten era."
We celebrate Engineer Karen Matthews this International Women’s Day 2023. She is the epitome of courage and resilience. She shows fellow women that with passion and determination, a career in engineering is within reach.
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