Women in STEM

  • Pushing technology: "You don’t know what you’ll be doing in 10 years’ time"
  • What exactly is in an engineer?
  • Making a difference: "You’re making things to improve lives"
  • "There’s a shortage – you’re going to be in high demand"

You’ve taken your exams, you’re waiting for your results and you’re working out what to do next. Have you ever wondered what it’s like to be an engineer? Nicola Combe, 29 – chartered engineer and product manager for British Gas’ Hive team explains how engineering isn’t all "greasy pipes and hard hats".


The words 'thermostat' and 'design classic' don’t sit well together, just as women can’t be engineers, right? Wrong, as one peek at Hive Active Heating™ 2 with its new thermostat, and a chat with Nicola Combe proves. “The new thermostat is connected through a cloud platform to your phone, so that you can control your heating and hot water at home or from your mobile, tablet or laptop anytime, anywhere.”


For Nicola, technology’s constant evolution is what makes jobs in STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and maths) so thrilling: “It’s really exciting to be pushing what technology can do. You don’t know what you’ll be doing in 10 years’ time; if you’re thinking about STEM as a career, you could be working on things that don’t exist now.”


And potentially being the “only girl in the room” doesn’t phase Nicola. From graduating – “I happened to be the one girl graduating with an engineering doctorate that day” – to meetings: “If you know your stuff and come across as competent, that helps. People are supportive. Nobody will pounce on you for making mistakes, as long as you work out what went wrong and resolve it.”


There’s still confusion around what an engineer is, says Nicola: “People ask me what type of engineer I am – that understanding of what an engineer does today is blurred. I tell them I make heating controls that you can operate via your smartphone. As soon as you mention apps, people get interested, so it’s exciting.”


Engineering is diverse, too: “Parents can struggle to know what engineering is – it’s hard to recommend something if you don’t know what it involves. It’s not greasy pipes and hard hats all the time! Obviously, there are roles involving that, but I sit in a lovely central London office designing mobile applications.”


Nicola’s creative streak shaped her choices: “When I was little, I was into drawing houses, then shoes; it was design and creativity that I was interested in.” At school, she loved design and technology: “You got to make things! I remember dragging my dad to a lighting shop to try to find bits and pieces, so that I could build lighting that I’d designed.”


Nicola took Highers in maths, physics and art, then studied industrial design at Brunel University: “Quite a creative course; you make a lot of your products, not just design them.” Instead of a university PhD, she chose an engineering doctorate: “You’re based with a company, so you learn about the industry and what problems it’s facing, then you try to solve one.”


Nicola says people, not things, are at the heart of her job: “You’re making things to improve people’s lives, whether that’s a car, heating control, even hair-straighteners! Working on products that make a difference to people’s lives is what drives me.”


She clearly knows what she’s talking about, being in the running for the 2014 IET Young Woman Engineer of the Year Awards and ranking in Management Today’s ‘35 Women Under 35 list in 2015. Nicola says launching Hive Active Heating™ 2 was a career highlight: “I love being able to point to the thermostat or mobile applications and say: 'I helped bring that to life.' I love the tangibility of my job.”


Her advice to girls considering a STEM career? “Get in touch with an engineering or design institution – they can tell you what a career in STEM might look like.” She adds that female engineers are hot property: “There’s a shortage – you’re going to be in high demand.” Her parting advice is: “Don’t be afraid to do something that’s a little different to what your friends are doing and, if it’s what you really want, stick at it – it’s worth it in the long run.”


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