Caffeine&Machine cultofmachine Cog in the Machine Meet the women engineering change at McLaren

Meet the women engineering change at McLaren

Holly Yeomans and Ella Podmore are two of the automotive experts challenging the traditional view of a male-dominated industry.

The McLaren Technology Centre in Woking doesn’t exactly conform to the stereotype of the British low-volume carmaker’s headquarters. Vast, fluid in its forms and built to a Stirling Prize-nominated design by Foster + Partners, it stands as a monument to the fastidiousness and vision of former McLaren CEO Ron Dennis.

It’s a far cry from the underlit, under-ventilated and cramped industrial units that defined independent British car manufacturing for so many decades. This isn’t cottage industry; it’s more like penthouse industry.

Then again, with just over a decade’s worth of experience building road cars in its current guise, there’s no reason for McLaren Automotive to feel beholden to tradition. Though it’s endured some rocky patches in its short history, it’s quickly worked its way up to become a brand that lies right at the sharp end of the supercar market.

Some of this is undoubtedly down to the McLaren brand’s rich sporting heritage – not to mention something called the F1 – but an evocative name alone isn’t a guarantee of success. It also requires talented, driven people – people like Holly Yeomans and Ella Podmore.

Like the company they work for and the building they work in, Holly and Ella are representative of an ongoing shift away from the traditional image of the low-volume car manufacturer. What was once an industry seen as a testosterone-fuelled boy’s club is moving, albeit gradually, towards a far smaller gender disparity.

A blue-blooded car enthusiast, Holly has been with McLaren since 2018. She relocated from Wales to Surrey to pursue a career in automotive engineering, having acquired a degree in motorsport engineering in 2015. Working her way up through the ranks, she’s now a senior project engineer.

“I’m responsible for ensuring that all propulsion content [powertain components] make it to production,” explains Holly. “It’s my job to make sure the people on the production line are happy with anything, and to make sure that line keeps going.”

In a prior role, working in Future Projects, Holly was tucked away in a secretive corner of the Technology Centre known as the Launch Area, working on the powertrain of what was then known by the codename P16. We know this car now as the Artura, McLaren’s new V6, plug-in hybrid mission statement for its electrified future. “I was responsible for delivering the powertrain for that car to the business, and making sure we hit project timelines,” Holly says.

“Now my job is to see the Artura into production, so you can see a couple of pieces of the jigsaw – when I started it was a future project, all hush-hush, and now it’s my responsibility as a senior project engineer to make sure everything’s as it should be [as a production car].”

Ella, meanwhile, is a senior materials engineer, helping oversee the many exotic metals that go into McLaren’s cars. Her McLaren career began as an intern in 2016, before she moved into her first full-time role in 2018. She holds a Masters of Materials Engineering from the University of Manchester. “I’d never really had a lifelong ambition to get into the automotive industry… but I had this poster of the McLaren P1 on my wall. It was my dream car, but it was only when I was applying for placement years that I looked up at the poster, and sent off my CV,” says Ella of her route into the company.

“Everything metal on the car, whether it be crash structures, paint systems, the exhaust tips that have to withstand 600°C – all these little metallic parts on the car, I’m responsible for testing, speccing and root-cause analysing if anything goes wrong. I love my job because it covers everything from the design phase… all the way through until we have customers speccing their vehicles. Our customers love to spec bespoke options, and quite a lot of what I do is ensuring that regardless of what colour, fabric or 24-carat gold or diamond-encrusted coating they use, they can withstand the same level [of tolerance] as our production spec.”

Both Holly and Ella assert that, as women in engineering, McLaren has been an endlessly welcoming environment.

“I’ve had my difficulties,” explains Holly, “but more in my education. I struggled, but this was 10 or 15 years ago now, and even then, women weren’t really seen to be part of that industry. I’d get the flippant comments and the jokes in class, but I never saw it as a barrier. I saw it as more of an opportunity to say ‘I’m a woman, so I obviously stand out. Let’s make sure I make the right impression to ensure it’s an equal playing field.’ I’ve never thought in my position [at McLaren] that I’ve had a hard time because I’m a woman.”

Ella notes, though, that there’s still some headway to make in this sector overall. “Being a woman in the engineering space, it’s common knowledge that gender equality’s not quite there yet… the balance is pretty much 50/50 now [in education], but the automotive industry I think still has a little way to go. I’m excited to see where electrification and autonomy take that – as we move towards electrification and products get more diverse, it’s attracting a more diverse workforce.”

Probably more notable than Holly and Ella’s genders is their youth. Ella, then aged 25, was announced last March as the Institute of Engineering and Technology’s Young Woman Engineer of the Year, and this year was awarded an MBE as part of the Queen’s Jubilee Honours. Both, meanwhile, have been included on regional development firm Invest in Surrey’s ‘40 under 40’ list, recognising their work as young talent in the area.

It’s people like Ella and Holly that are spearheading the move of not just McLaren, but the automotive industry as a whole, towards a future that looks increasingly different from its past, and one with a younger and more diverse workforce than ever. Cars like the Artura are perfect evidence of this: increasingly complex electrical architectures and construction methods require more input than ever from people outside the traditional mechanical engineering sphere, for which materials and electrics experts like Ella are vital. Alongside this, those in powertrain development, like Holly, are helping ensure that this new era of cars don’t lose the critical traits of soul and personality. One thing’s for certain: there’s a lot of exciting things on the horizon.

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