By Yvonne Baker
It was pleasing to see some common sense breaking out in the age old debate about attracting more girls into engineering this week. An intelligent article by Louisa Peacock in the Daily Telegraph and news of research into why girls become engineers and the stories behind their success make a welcome change to the traditional approach of always looking at the problems and barriers. This contrasts sharply with the (to put it politely) patronising advice issued recently in America that, to interest your daughter in STEM you should use colours, reading recipes aloud and “keep doing jigsaw puzzles”. The many women I know who have become successful engineers have done so because they genuinely want to do something useful but also different – something that is going to have an impact, something that can potentially change the world. Engineering is hugely creative, and allows those working in it to stretch themselves and achieve something which will be of benefit to the wider community. Female engineers work in these areas because they are exciting and a great use of their skills.
Women in engineering are a varied bunch, much like women going into any other profession (or men for that matter). What does mark them apart is their desire to not simply to follow the crowd and not heed the careers advice that is handed out, not just by careers advisers (who should know better), but also by friends, family and all too often well-meaning but completely ill informed strangers. We know that many things can have an impact on a girl’s likelihood to consider a less traditional profession like engineering – often it is assumed that more academically able girls will enter medicine or dentistry or perhaps pharmacy. Others may simply not know about the huge range of opportunities that careers like engineering offer; from the more traditional contexts like building bridges or mechanical design, to the more nuanced applications like sound recording, biomedical engineering or advanced materials. Teachers are obviously key influencers, not just in what they teach but also in how they teach it. Through the Science Learning Centres and National STEM Centre, we help teachers and others working with young people to ensure that they communicate and teach these subjects in ways that are accessible to everyone, and engage girls as well as boys. We also provide teachers and others working in education with lots of ideas and the background material that will really start to open up the possibilities for all young people in engineering, but also in all kinds of careers using science, technology and maths.
As a proud female engineer myself, it’s difficult to see what’s not to like about a career that provides so many possibilities, so much scope to use your initiative and creativity, and to make a real, lasting difference to some of the key challenges the world faces today. Yes, of course there are challenges – but there are challenges in any job worth having. On the other side of the coin, there are actually many advantages about ‘being a woman in a man’s world’ – you are always going to be noticeable, so make sure it’s for the right reasons – doing your job well and really making things happen. The fact is that engineering offers a huge range of fascinating, rewarding, well paid carers with many, many opportunities for travel, advancement and personal fulfillment. If only we had more supporters in the media making sure that we give these messages not only to young people, girls and boys alike, but also their parents and others who have such an influence on their future plans for study and careers.