As the world’s only professional body dedicated to the aerospace community, the Royal Aeronautical Society (RAeS) exists to further the advancement of aeronautical art, science and engineering around the world. Established in 1866, the RAeS appointed its first female president, Jenny Body earlier this year. We are delighted and honoured that Jenny agreed to be interviewed by sptr.net.
sptr: You started your undergraduate studies as the only girl in the class. Did this matter to you at the time?
JB: Although it was quite scary at the very beginning, because the other students were very supportive it really didn’t matter and I ended up thoroughly enjoying it, in being a bit different – if anything the negatives came from the staff, some of whom who had the dinosaur views.
sptr: What made you consider engineering as a career?
JB: My father was an engineer (in aerospace!) and seemed to work on things that interested me. I had a couple of clerical holiday jobs at his company and whilst the work I did was pretty dull, what I could see going on around me was fantastic (Concorde developments). I did much better at physics and maths at school than some of the humanities and it was natural to choose a ‘logical’ subject for university. At the time I was choosing there was quite some publicity about girls going into engineering and that appealed to me as being ‘logical’ but not pure science.
sptr: What did an apprenticeship give you that other opportunities didn’t?
JB: Firstly it gave me exposure to the world of work…so important to start to understand. Also, although I had some maths and physics at school I had very limited experience of metal work, making things, using tools, etc., and the first year of the apprenticeship really highlighted to me the whole principle of not designing something you cannot make! It also helped as I had had a rather privileged time at school – all girls, all pretty bright and middle class. The world of work wasn’t like that – actually it’s much more fun, with people from different backgrounds and capabilities.
sptr: The learned societies must have seemed remote to you in your early career. Did you ever think you would end up sitting in the President’s chair?
JB: Frankly no, during the early stages of my career, the learned societies did not feature on my radar screen. They were not publicised at college nor within the company. Being a chartered engineer was not necessary. I really only became actively engaged during the latter stages of my career when the networking opportunities became particularly important and valuable to my job. As I became more involved it seemed to me that the president’s role was very significant as a senior leader of the industry and way beyond my vision. However, the role is really to be an ambassador for the Society and to represent it and project it wherever possible and I hope that I am doing that well.
sptr: What do you see as important challenges faced by young people today?
JB: Keeping up with accelerating technology is a major challenge. In the early days of aviation, the aircraft designer knew enough of all aspects to design, make and probably fly the aircraft. Nowadays and increasingly in the future, one’s area of expertise and technical knowledge is just one small part of a mosaic of technologies being deployed and integrated to make a new product. Engineering and aviation is global industry and one must expect to work in different countries with different cultures. Maintaining the work-life balance you want is crucial.
sptr: You have spent a long time in engineering, which to some is still a domain of the male. Is that true, and do women have to be better than men in the same job to overcome such prejudice?
JB: Engineering is not the domain of the male, there are more men (at the moment) as a result of history and the social and economic times. As the culture of the country develops so more women are empowered to work particularly in engineering. I don’t think women necessarily have to be better but maybe more determined and may need a ‘support network’. Engineering itself is not always seen by the public as the professional career equal to medicine and law. This may have a greater impact on young women and those around them.
sptr: No career is without setback and I imagine that yours is no different. How do you cope when things seem to be going wrong?
JB: I have been fortunate in having my support network, initially particularly my father and then latterly my husband and son (both engineers as well). I love being part of a team (even if I am the team leader) and being able to work things through with people with the same objective is really good. It is also important to me that work isn’t everything and I have other things to turn to when I need to get away. I think my work/life balance was ok most of the time.
sptr: How does it feel when things go right?
JB: Fantastic, when you see an aircraft that you have worked on first take to the sky there is nothing like it. You feel you have made a real contribution and a real difference even if you were only a small cog in a much larger machine.
sptr: Finally, if you could speak directly to young people in school today, what message would you give them?
JB: Engineering is a great career. It has many facets some deeply technical, about organisation and about people themselves. Seize every opportunity to develop yourself as you can make a difference.
sptr: Thank you.
Biography: Jenny Body
Jenny joined Airbus as an undergraduate apprentice where she prepared flight software for ‘fly by wire’ aircraft. Since then, her career has involved her in research and technology management, wing design and development and the preparation and establishment of the Next Generation Composite Wing Programme – the biggest UK Aerospace Research and Technology programme to date. Jenny was awarded the OBE at the end of 2010 for services to engineering. In May 2013 she became the first female President of the Royal Aeronautical Society. In July 2013 she received an Honoray Doctorate of Engineering from University of West of England.