A lifetime championing women engineers: Agnes Kaposi

A lifetime championing women engineers: Agnes Kaposi

A lifetime championing women engineers: Agnes Kaposi

Introduction

Dr Agnes Kaposi (CF 1970) has built her distinguished career in engineering aided by learnings from her Fellowship. It yielded valuable insights into the challenges facing a female leader in this traditionally male sector, and enabled her to assist women to follow her example.

“My Fellowship had a great impact on my career, in providing me with new professional insight, contacts and networks." - Agnes Kaposi, Fellow

In 1970, Agnes Kaposi obtained her PhD in computer-aided design and was looking for the next challenge. A young mother, for the past decade she had been balancing the demands of parenthood with the development of her professional career. She had arrived in the UK in 1957, a graduate engineer with little more than the clothes on her back, having fled from Communist Hungary. Through hard work, she secured roles as a researcher in telecommunications and computing, industries dominated by men and discriminating against women. Her salary was less than male counterparts with the same roles, and she never met women in the sector to support her. Engineering was a career path few women considered, and the idea that women could become leaders or board members in engineering companies was a remote prospect. Agnes was convinced that women had the potential to make successful careers in engineering, and thought that their position in the UK was unfair to women and harmful for society as a whole.

In this context, she was encouraged by a friend to undertake a Churchill Fellowship to explore and compare the experiences of women engineers in a Communist country with those in a Western democracy. Travelling to Hungary as her first example, she found that a fair proportion of women were employed in industry and academic institutions, but most had been forced into that profession by the oppressive Communist regime, and few had achieved prominent or rewarding roles. Taking the USA as her example on the other side of the political divide revealed a situation similar to the UK, where women engineers were rare. Her Fellowship experience reinforced her conviction that much more had to be done to enhance the position of women in engineering. The Fellowship yielded additional benefits. Her US trip afforded a wealth of new professional contacts and insights which would further her own research and career; in return, she was invited to lecture in several universities and research institutions, helping to develop her own international reputation and that of British research in her field.

On her return to the UK, she was determined to follow her passions for education and social justice, supporting the careers of young engineers in general, and women engineers in particular. In 1976, she was appointed as Head of Electrical Engineering at South Bank Polytechnic (now London South Bank University). Her department paid particular attention to the unemployed and students from under-represented backgrounds. As she built up a graduate school of 200 Masters and PhD students, and introduced higher technician courses specifically for unemployed women arts graduates, hers became one of the largest engineering departments in the UK.

Agnes’s leadership also attracted many female staff. A National Survey of Women in Electrical Engineering Departments revealed that Agnes was the only woman Head in the country at the time, and there were more women staff employed in her department than in any other engineering department in the UK. This was not because Agnes recruited women over men; she always recruited the best candidate. Rather, more women applied to her department because they saw Agnes as a role model. During this time, Agnes helped many women to establish themselves in the engineering sector, providing mentoring and guidance.

Alongside this, Agnes’s own career developed rapidly. Over the years she worked as a consultant to the Admiralty, local industry, and major companies including BT, and Siemens internationally. In addition to publications on computer hardware and software engineering, she published several books about systems engineering, a field in which Agnes became a recognised expert. In 1992, she became the third woman ever to have been elected as Fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering.

Now 88 years old, and retired from engineering, Agnes is busier than ever. She continues to educate on issues related to social justice, through talks at schools and universities, and aims to inspire the next generation by sharing her engineering experience and life’s story. She has recently published an autobiography, which describes her personal journey from Holocaust survivor to becoming one of the leading engineers of her generation and a role model for women in the profession.

Agnes says, “My Fellowship had a great impact on my career, in providing me with new professional insight, contacts and networks. It helped me to further my research and gain respect in the sector. The situation for women has dramatically improved in the 50 years since I did my Fellowship but there is still more to be done and I will continue to educate and speak out on issues of social justice.”

“My Fellowship had a great impact on my career, in providing me with new professional insight, contacts and networks." - Agnes Kaposi, Fellow

In 1970, Agnes Kaposi obtained her PhD in computer-aided design and was looking for the next challenge. A young mother, for the past decade she had been balancing the demands of parenthood with the development of her professional career. She had arrived in the UK in 1957, a graduate engineer with little more than the clothes on her back, having fled from Communist Hungary. Through hard work, she secured roles as a researcher in telecommunications and computing, industries dominated by men and discriminating against women. Her salary was less than male counterparts with the same roles, and she never met women in the sector to support her. Engineering was a career path few women considered, and the idea that women could become leaders or board members in engineering companies was a remote prospect. Agnes was convinced that women had the potential to make successful careers in engineering, and thought that their position in the UK was unfair to women and harmful for society as a whole.

In this context, she was encouraged by a friend to undertake a Churchill Fellowship to explore and compare the experiences of women engineers in a Communist country with those in a Western democracy. Travelling to Hungary as her first example, she found that a fair proportion of women were employed in industry and academic institutions, but most had been forced into that profession by the oppressive Communist regime, and few had achieved prominent or rewarding roles. Taking the USA as her example on the other side of the political divide revealed a situation similar to the UK, where women engineers were rare. Her Fellowship experience reinforced her conviction that much more had to be done to enhance the position of women in engineering. The Fellowship yielded additional benefits. Her US trip afforded a wealth of new professional contacts and insights which would further her own research and career; in return, she was invited to lecture in several universities and research institutions, helping to develop her own international reputation and that of British research in her field.

On her return to the UK, she was determined to follow her passions for education and social justice, supporting the careers of young engineers in general, and women engineers in particular. In 1976, she was appointed as Head of Electrical Engineering at South Bank Polytechnic (now London South Bank University). Her department paid particular attention to the unemployed and students from under-represented backgrounds. As she built up a graduate school of 200 Masters and PhD students, and introduced higher technician courses specifically for unemployed women arts graduates, hers became one of the largest engineering departments in the UK.

Agnes’s leadership also attracted many female staff. A National Survey of Women in Electrical Engineering Departments revealed that Agnes was the only woman Head in the country at the time, and there were more women staff employed in her department than in any other engineering department in the UK. This was not because Agnes recruited women over men; she always recruited the best candidate. Rather, more women applied to her department because they saw Agnes as a role model. During this time, Agnes helped many women to establish themselves in the engineering sector, providing mentoring and guidance.

Alongside this, Agnes’s own career developed rapidly. Over the years she worked as a consultant to the Admiralty, local industry, and major companies including BT, and Siemens internationally. In addition to publications on computer hardware and software engineering, she published several books about systems engineering, a field in which Agnes became a recognised expert. In 1992, she became the third woman ever to have been elected as Fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering.

Now 88 years old, and retired from engineering, Agnes is busier than ever. She continues to educate on issues related to social justice, through talks at schools and universities, and aims to inspire the next generation by sharing her engineering experience and life’s story. She has recently published an autobiography, which describes her personal journey from Holocaust survivor to becoming one of the leading engineers of her generation and a role model for women in the profession.

Agnes says, “My Fellowship had a great impact on my career, in providing me with new professional insight, contacts and networks. It helped me to further my research and gain respect in the sector. The situation for women has dramatically improved in the 50 years since I did my Fellowship but there is still more to be done and I will continue to educate and speak out on issues of social justice.”