TV presenter Dr Shini Somara talks to signalling engineer Inge-Sarah Andersen from Network Rail about her wealth of experiences and knowledge of industry, her inspirations and how she will continue to make an impact in engineering and technology.
Inge-Sarah Andersen: I am currently an assistant signalling project engineer at Network Rail. I deal with assurance, which means I check designs, technical documents and processes and make sure everyone who’s operating within that space is doing so, safely.
SS: How is it being a woman of colour in engineering?
ISA: I am often the only woman in a room, and almost certainly the only woman of colour. I’m relatively young and must admit, there’s still a little self-doubt and impostor syndrome as a biracial engineer. But when chief execs and people at that level start believing in you, it gives me the motivation to start living up to that.
For me, there are two ways I can react in a situation where somebody is treating you unfairly. I can either whine about it and not progress in life, or I can get over it, try to do something about it and get on with my life.
I think it is important to talk about differences. Not talking about it can be quite damaging because you are effectively erasing their identity and you’re not acknowledging what they might be going through. For example, I think it’s fine for us to have this conversation because we’re two women talking about it, but I guess I’d be more worried if men were having this conversation and assuming they know our experiences.
SS: What is your approach to mentoring?
ISA: Mentoring is almost like parenting; they can guide you. I feel like once you leave school, you tend not to think about the next steps. I always call my engineering mentor Nikki my work mum – I’d be lost without her!
I did something called the reverse mentoring scheme where I mentored our chief executive for a year. He believes that diversity and inclusion is important. Research has shown that diverse teams get better results because you’ve got diversity of thought. These teams are more likely to come up with new solutions, rather than the same people agreeing with each other over and over again, and not solving anything.
SS: What makes a good mentor for you?
ISA: A good mentor needs to be open-minded, willing to listen and not judge. They should offer advice based on their experiences, in a positive way. I personally am a big fan of setting goals or smart targets; so you know where the relationship is heading.
Having good support helps. I have three mentors, who are all women. This is really unusual. Until recently, my line manager was a woman and so I’ve had a lot of good female influence, almost to the point where I’ve questioned whether I should get some male influence to have a bit more diversity myself! The best match is when mentees and mentors are as different as possible.
SS: What about diversity and inclusion?
ISA: Diversity of thought is good for business and is also the morally right thing to do. It makes the work environment much more interesting as well. When I work in a team that’s diverse, from a social perspective, how lovely is it to come into work and get to celebrate different cultural events? If diversity is made to be an important thing within business, then the general population gets to understand those issues too and that we are all the same in lots of ways.
Social issues like racism and inequality need to be challenged from the inside out. It helps people to bring their best selves to work. Network Rail is a great company in terms of really being yourself. We are very vocal supporters of people of all genders, races, sexualities and religions. I would say it’s translated to better interactions within the company, between different people.
SS: What is the most important skill you have developed?
ISA: Networking. I am an excellent networker. Talking to people, getting in contact with people, learning how to write really nice emails to people.
Also, I think failure was really good for me, too, because it taught me a little bit of humility and also that I put a lot of pressure on myself by being the best all the time.
SS: And finally, how can we empower women?
ISA: We don’t need to empower women. I think we need to empower men to understand what’s relevant because they are still the majority. I need to be talking to the men who have traditionally had everything, so they can understand our differences. In the same way, if the men only spoke to each other, they would be missing something about my experience.