Celebrating International Women in Engineering Day: Meet Abbie Hutty
International Women in Engineering Day (INWED), on 23 June, is a celebration of the incredible achievements of female engineers around the world. At Surrey, we mark the occasion with a chat with one of our brightest alumni stars – Abbie Hutty – a Systems Engineer at Airbus, who has played a leading role in Europe’s first Mars Rover mission, due to launch in 2022!
The theme of INWED 2021 is ‘Engineering Heroes’. Who are your engineering heroes and why?
Well, if it wasn’t for Colin Pillinger, who was principal investigator for the Beagle II Mars lander project, I wouldn’t be an engineer today. While I was at school studying for GCSEs, I saw a news interview with him in which he explained that the Beagle II probe was being built by British engineers. Until then I hadn’t realised that engineering covered such high-tech and exciting projects as missions to other planets, so it really made me reconsider what engineering could be.
Donna Shirley, who worked at the Jet Propulsion Lab in the US from the 1960s to the 80s, is another personal hero of mind. When she started, she was the only woman among 2,000 engineers. She persevered and rose through the ranks to become the Program Manager of the Sojourner rover – the very first rover on Mars.
What first got you interested in your field of engineering?
I was always quite good at maths and science, but found creative subjects like art and DT much more enjoyable, and I really wanted a career where I’d be able to design and make things. Engineering turned out to be the ideal way to do that, with enough technical challenge and problem solving along the way to keep it interesting!
Could you tell us about your current role with Airbus?
I’m currently a Systems Engineer on the Sample Fetch Rover, co-ordinating with specialists across different disciplines to ensure that the rover we’re creating works as a whole. Day-to-day, this involves a lot of talking to converge on a design that meets everyone’s needs, as well as top level planning to ensure that all aspects of the design are properly proven and verified before launch.
How did you get from studying as an undergraduate at Surrey to where you are now?
I studied on Surrey’s MEng Mechanical Engineering and spent my Professional Training placement year at Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd. This gave me my first taste of the space industry and working on real satellite missions.
After graduating I joined Airbus’s Space Division as a Mechanical Analyst, but soon realised that I wanted a higher level view of the projects I was working on. I became a Structures Engineer, leading a team of specialists to design the chassis of the European Space Agency (ESA) ExoMars Rover - Europe’s first Mars Rover. I loved the project so much that I changed roles to remain working on it. This included leading the build of a full prototype which had to demonstrate that it could survive the extremes of temperature, vibrations and shocks involved in launch, rocket stage separation, descent and landing.
In 2019 I moved from ExoMars to work on the Sample Fetch Rover, a NASA-ESA collaboration which is due to bring back samples from Mars to Earth in what will be a global first.
What challenges have you faced during your career, and do you think it’s been harder or easier to reach your goals as a woman?
Most of the engineers I’ve encountered have treated me just as one of the team. There are still some battles to fight – often on trivial things like equipment and protective clothing never being available in my size! I’ve also juggled pregnancy and motherhood while trying to secure exciting (but often highly demanding) roles on flagship projects where competition is high and there can still be a bit of a boys’ club attitude. On the flipside, sometimes being a woman makes you stand out in a room and, provided you’re good at your job, you’ll get remembered for the right reasons.
What do you think are the main barriers to women pursuing STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) subjects?
Society still stereotypes boys and girls, which really limits what kids can imagine themselves doing in their careers. Parents and teachers also tend to have outdated ideas about what engineering really is. Engineers aren’t as visible in our society as teachers, doctors, lawyers and so on, and people get described as engineers who are, for example, maintenance staff. That doesn’t help women to see that engineering is a high tech and exciting career to aspire to!
Who have been the influential women in your own career journey?
Grazia Vittadini, Chief Technology Officer of Airbus, is an incredible woman who has achieved amazing success, but still makes time to help and advise those following after her.
I have a brilliant network of talented women who I’ve been fortunate enough to work with so far, and who have gone on to successful roles around the world. It’s great to have this network to celebrate our successes, inspire each other and share advice when one of us hits a career challenge.
What have been the highlights of your career so far?
Engineering has given me all kinds of opportunities I never expected, such as becoming Ambassador for the Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering which involved me attending the awards ceremony at Buckingham Palace.
"One thing I’ll never forget, though, is a memory from my placement year. I went with a group of colleagues on a surfing weekend, and one night we lay in the sand dunes and watched satellites flying overhead. Watching missions that my colleagues had worked on, shooting across the night’s sky, was a really humbling and inspiring moment."
What legacy do you hope to leave for the next generation of women engineers?
I hope that anyone following a similar journey in my field will find that the path has been smoothed by people like me who have fixed the issues we’ve found along the way. Hopefully it won’t be many more years before being a ‘female engineer’ is so normal that it is no longer noteworthy – that’s when we’ll know we have succeeded!
Has Abbie’s experience inspired you to find out more the opportunities a Surrey degree in mechanical engineering can lead to? Explore our courses in mechanical engineering sciences, including our BEng (Hons)/MEng Mechanical Engineering.