Isla Mackenzie: ‘I’m the first woman to work in my department’

Williams are well known for having a large female work force, especially with Claire Williams in the Team Principal role and Sophie Ogg as their Head of Communications. Though some areas of the team have seen fewer female employees than others. Isla Mackenzie spoke to me about her experience at the Oxfordshire factory.

Although now working with a highly successful Formula One team, the Scot never set out to work in motorsport. “Originally, I just wanted to be an engineer on the oil rigs offshore,” she told me. “I saw that Motorsport Engineering was an actual thing as I didn’t even know you could study that. I thought ‘oh god, that looks really good’. I’ve always had modified cars, so I applied for that and joined in the second year for Motorsport Engineering.”

Even after enrolling into the degree, the plan wasn’t to work for someone else, particularly such a large company. “The original plan was to do that and then do engine tuning and start my own business, which I did do a bit on the side, but everyone else on my course were applying for jobs and I thought ‘oh well I’ll try’ and somehow ended up at Williams,” she explained.

Nevertheless, Isla still isn’t quite sure how she ended up at one of the most famous racing teams in the world. To add to the unconventional story, Mackenzie never intended to go into F1 if she was to work in the sport. “Well, I really wanted to go into rallying” she said, it seems that a series of events lead her to doing her job and now she can’t imagine doing anything else.

As a technician at Williams, Isla Mackenzie works in the Prototype and Test department. Speaking of her job, she said: “it’s basically R&D (research and development) … I’m based at the factory, but I did get to go to Silverstone and Hungary (last year).” Despite Williams reputation of having many female employees, this particular department had never hired a woman. “I’m the first female that’s ever worked in the department,” she described. “But they are all really, really nice to me.”

frank and claire
Team Principal Sir Frank Williams, with daughter and Deputy Claire

This is not to say Williams isn’t as we thought, as Isla explained: “Williams are very good at taking on ‘grad’ students and they take on quite a lot of apprentices. There’s 3 apprentice women so that’s good (in engineering).” In fact, she was particularly complimentary of the ‘family feeling’ at the factory. “Williams is such a family team you always see Frank in reception and Claire (Williams) with the drivers in the canteen. Everyone’s just walking about and is really approachable. A lot of people in my department have been there for almost 30 years, so once many people are there, they stay because it’s such a nice company.”

To go from studying at university to working for a 7-time F1 World Championship winning team may seem unusual, but the 23-year-old puts it down to one thing: “apply for everything,” she said. “Don’t look too much into the job description”. She thinks this is especially important for Uni-leavers, “to be honest everyone’s CVs are basically the same, so it’s about how you actually present yourself. I’m quite outgoing so that must be what caught their eye. Out of my whole class, and there was about 20 of us, I think there’s only 3 or 4 of us who have got jobs, the rest are still applying,” Isla described. 

Her ‘apply for everything’ philosophy proved dividends with her current role. “The job is never really what the description says,” she explained. “I saw prototype and test and I thought ‘well I’ll apply for that anyway’ and now I have my role in the factory, I much prefer it to an engineer” showing that persistence and opening your eyes to other opportunities can really pay off.

 That’s not her only piece of advice to others though, saying: “don’t compare yourself, I was once asked if I thought I would have to work harder because I was female. I don’t want someone to expect me to work harder because I’m female.” Continuing, Mackenzie also heard of a woman previously at Williams who worked her way up to a senior role. “A girl working at reception moved to the stores department, where she then went to be a technician in hydraulics. She worked her way up there and is now apparently in another F1 company’s race team. Teams are more likely to hire internally.” A key insight, this is proof that you cannot always expect to walk into your perfect role, and that getting your ‘foot on the ladder’ can be essential if you have big dreams.

To finish, I asked Isla about ‘Dare to be Different’, an organisation she is proud to be a member of. “It’s a small community” she said speaking of D2BD, “All my friends at work are men and although they are  really great, its nice to have some girl support too”, she reiterated the delight at having like-minded females to talk to and who would take her seriously when others outside the sport wouldn’t.

At only 23 years old, and content with working with Williams, in the future we could see Isla Mackenzie herself working her way up to a senior role and continuing Williams commitment to promote women to the most vital positions and to produce excellent role models.