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By Sam Terrace on

Women in Engineering: Aksa Mahmood, South Western Railway

Opening a series of posts about women working in the rail industry, Rail Engineering Management graduate Aksa tells us about her journey so far.

As our biggest-ever Future Engineers event approaches, we’ve teamed up with the Rail Delivery Group to find out more about some of the women engineers working in the rail industry today.

First up is Aksa Mahmood, a Rail Engineering Management graduate employed by FirstGroup. Aksa has a Bachelor’s with Honours in Mechanical Engineering from Queen Mary University of London and works at South Western Railway (SWR) in the Salisbury depot.

Why have you chosen a career in engineering?

When I was young I would still watch VHS tapes and had cassettes, but now they’re relics. Seeing advancements like this in such a short period of time, completely changing how the world runs, really piqued my interest.

The reason I chose engineering is because I want to see what happens next, and be involved in shaping the world.

Engineering encompasses so many different subjects. As an engineer you must think about everything—the monetary, social, environmental and other aspects—but it’s still a creative and innovative career.

What are the most interesting aspects of your role?

The constantly changing environment, it’s fast paced and there’s so much to learn. At a depot, there are a lot of people doing different jobs at one time, including jobs you wouldn’t even think of.

There is so much freedom to learn what I want to learn, so I can decide what I want to do next. If I want to see another depot or go to an event or take part of a course, then they are more than happy for me to do so. I get chances to see what’s happening across the industry, not just at South Western Railway.

What’s your favourite thing about working for SWR?

SWR has undergone a lot of change in the past year and witnessing this has been interesting. Also, with technology changing there is a shift to the next generation, so I get to see the collaboration of older technology with the newer.

There is so much opportunity to develop your knowledge and everyone at SWR is happy to give support and share this knowledge.

Have you faced any barriers in your carrier?

Maybe at the time there were some difficulties which seemed big, but there are barriers anyone else would face.

These would be things such as meeting the criteria to get into university or having the requirements for a job. The only thing I would say is that perseverance helps in any situation.

Have you noticed more women becoming engineers?

I do think that there are more women, but the number is still low. Also, there are some engineering subjects which more women take—for example in my university there were a fair few women, but they would gravitate towards medical engineering rather than mechanical, which might explain why I don’t see many women in the rail industry.

Engineering is thought of as a male-dominated field which may deter some women and even put them off applying. 

What did your friends/family think about you becoming an engineer?

My close family were not surprised about me going into engineering, they thought it was a really good choice for me and encouraged it.

Extended family or people in passing often say “oh, you must be the only girl” or just ask “why engineering?” and it’s followed by a very simple answer: “I like engineering.” They think of it as purely male-dominated, but when they hear about what I did in my degree or so far in my job they become really interested and are surprised by what I actually do as an engineer.

What advice do you have for young people going into science or engineering?

Do your research—there are so many subjects that branch off science and engineering, so even if you find one you are interested in, it doesn’t hurt to research it.

Similarly, have a look into different schemes for young people, as there are so many programmes available. Joining institutes like the iMeche and going to some conferences goes a long way—you never know who you will meet.

Something that is also overlooked for engineers is a preconception that they won’t have (or don’t need) good communication skills, which couldn’t be further from the truth. Speak to people from different industries and ask them questions. They’ll be happy to impart knowledge.

Don’t be scared to apply. If you see something that interests you, but you think “I don’t think I’ll get it” and don’t apply, you definitely won’t. You’ve got to apply to be rejected, and the worse that a company could say is no.

Have you always had an interest in trains?

I always found them interesting but only became really fascinated when I would commute to university in London. I think constantly being irritated by the Central line played a factor, asking myself “why it like this is” or “surely it would be better if…”

I found out about research and development which further intrigued me and noticed what an important time it is in the rail industry. The introduction of new technology and the world changing essentially, these leave plenty of room for innovation.

Who has been a big influence on your life or career to date?

My parents have influenced me the most. When I was young they would encourage me to be creative and make things. My dad would do the repairing in the house and I jumped at any opportunity to help him, following him and asking questions, often being the one who holding the flashlight!

He always said that when I got older we would fix up an old car together and that really captivated me. When I got older I still had a range of different hobbies and this became an interest in engineering, which they encouraged me to pursue.

Do you have a mentor and what do you think are the benefits of mentoring?

I do have a mentor, who I can look up to and can take advice from. She had pretty much the same start as me in engineering, in terms of the graduate scheme and degree, so she’s already done what I want to do.

She understands what I’m going through which means she can give me the best advice going forward. Aside from verbal support, there is an added benefit of having someone who has a whole branch of networking, knowing where I should go for my next course and who to talk to.

When you’re not at work, what do you do to unwind?

I have a lot of different interests outside of work. I mentioned before that I like to be creative, so I really enjoy art, especially drawing. I also like to read and write, as well as watching movies, especially 1980s movies and true crime documentaries. So, a little mash-up of lots of things.

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