By Yvonne Baker
Tuesday 23 June was the second National Women in Engineering Day and, by all accounts, a resounding success – as long as, that is, you knew it was taking place in the first instance. OK – a world record for a gathering of female engineers was broken in Horseguards Parade, and Women’s Hour featured it, but as I announced it to a roomful of committed Heads of science from secondary schools across the UK attending a conference in Cambridge, I was met with a sea of blank faces. What an opportunity missed!
Hats off to WES for introducing and organising a National Women in Engineering Day, and the lack of awareness among those I was speaking with should in no way deflect from their achievements. However, if we are to make inroads into the knotty problem of attracting more girls and women into engineering in the UK, it will take more than an annual day; it will take a step change in our culture and society – not just piling more pressure on an already overburdened education system under which, except when it comes to this crucial area, our girls tend to thrive.
The facts are there for everyone to see: even in 2015 only 7% of chartered engineers are female, a figure which has increased by a phenomenal whole percentage point since 2010, which still compares badly against so many other nations including most of our closest neighbours and competitors. Indeed, the ratio of female to male students on most engineering courses has shifted remarkably little from those days back in the – erm – early 1980s when I began my degree. Despite the efforts of WISE, WES and many others, the UK still has an identity problem when it comes to women and engineering – seeing it as something somewhat alien and ‘difficult’, despite the wonderfully positive experiences that many of us had and still have.
So, what’s the solution? Well, let’s face it – if I knew that I wouldn’t be writing this, but would be sitting on a private island having solved most of the other woes of the world. But, for what it’s worth, and as a female engineer who has been around long enough now, albeit in consultancy and education as well as manufacturing environments, to be able to say it ‘as it is’, here are some thoughts.
Engineering is a great profession
- Through an apprentice, technical or graduate route – for anyone, and those women who pursue it are great at it too. The problem is that too often the debate on engineering is monopolised by the ‘skills shortage’ issue (i.e. your country needs you) or for women, the ‘well, it’s difficult but we’ll help’ approach (i.e. you will need additional support). I’m still to be convinced that either of these is the way you would try to sell any other product, proposition or service on the planet (if you wanted to do it successfully), so why do we do it here? Firstly, I can honestly say that at 14, 16, 18 or 21, I’m pretty convinced I didn’t take the country’s skills needs into account when making subject or study choices, and I’m not convinced many people (if any) do now. Secondly, of course, as a woman in a traditionally male environment, engineering can be tough and a bit of a shock to the system – it certainly was in chemical plants in 1984! However, it was also a matchless formative experience, where I met an amazing array of people, all of whom added to my experience of life in one way or another, and a springboard to a wonderful varied career. And that is an experience shared by the many, not just the few – so isn’t it about time we started highlighting the positives, not (inadvertently) trying to put people off?
Engineering changes lives
- Many engineers will impact more lives in a single project or working week than most other people will change in a lifetime. There seems to be a notion that in order to help people, improve quality of life or ‘make a difference’ the key routes for young people, and dare I say particularly girls, are medicine, teaching or perhaps even law. Whilst these areas of work are vital and, we all know from TV or personal experience what they look like and what we could expect, this misses a simple but incontrovertible truth: that without engineers we wouldn’t have the hospitals, schools, court rooms, transport or homes upon which and all these things rely. Every day engineers save lives through activities from food manufacture, to ensuring the safety of buildings or bridges, to maintaining the telecommunications infrastructure that enables us to call on help when we need it.
Engineering is a fantastic springboard
- For me, the reason we want more young people, including girls, to pursue engineering studies and engineering careers, is that it gives you so many options. Through my studies and early work experience, I developed problem solving, team working and project management skills which have been the very things that have enabled me to move first into consultancy and then into education support. You only have to look at the CBI Education and Skills reports to see how many organisations value engineering skills, whatever their sector, and that doesn’t even begin to take into account the many engineers who have started their own businesses and are successful entrepreneurs. Indeed, a great friend of mine, the inimitable Michelle Dow, began her working life as a British Gas apprentice, becoming a gas engineer and a service manager. She then became a business owner, and now spends her life inspiring young people in STEM throughout the North West (before moving on to taking over the world!). Too often in the engineering debate, people talk about the ‘leaky pipeline’ of engineers moving out of engineering-related activities to other things. Whilst I see the point where people are moving on for negative reasons, it is often the case that this ‘leakage’ just shows how flexible and valuable an engineering education really is.
Engineers come in all shapes and sizes
- There is something for everyone. Engineering is a subject which encompasses all of our lives, from the water that comes out of our taps in the morning, the trains or cars in which we travel, the medical treatments that we sometimes need, to the research going on into materials and technologies which will shape our lives in fifty years time. There is probably not a day when you don’t come across an engineer of some sort – you may just not realise it. For years there has been an on-going debate around whether we should try and protect the title ‘engineer’ to denote those who have pursued engineering through a more academic route. Some think this will help raise its status in the UK, but personally I am as proud to be called an engineer alongside the man or woman who ensures my boiler is safe, as those engineers doing academic research (boy, that will get a reaction I suspect!). And when it comes to female engineers, we are a mixed bunch too. We range from glamorous fashionistas, to those of us who would like to be glamorous but have never quite managed it (guess which one I am!). One female engineer has the largest collection of Jimmy Choos and designer handbags of anyone I know. We also come from the widest range of backgrounds and routes you can imagine – apprenticeships, returners to work, career changers, graduates, late developers, the lot! What we do have in common is a desire to do something creative, which makes a difference and which gives us options and possibilities (oh, and often pays well too).
When it comes to celebrating women in engineering, let’s do it continuously, loudly and always with positive messages that might actually make people want to do it – not frighten them off before they have even started! Let’s make every day a ‘women in engineering’ day and indeed, an ‘engineering is for everyone’ day.
Filed under: Career Development, Engineering, Yvonne Baker | Tagged: Careers, engineering, Institution of Mechanical Engineers, national women in engineering day, science, Women, Women in Engineering, women's hour | Leave a comment »