Women have been in engineering roles since the First World War, but it’s still seen as a man’s job despite women pushing the boundaries and proving they have the skills, the dedication and the knowledge to succeed…
Age old stereotypes are still rife and despite Emmeline Pankhurst and her fellow suffragettes sacrificing their underwear for equal rights, women are still not opting for traditionally male-dominated professions such as engineering. But why?
You may think that girls just aren’t naturally scientific but this year’s A level results (2009) showed that they are consistently performing well in science, engineering and technology (SET) subjects. In technology for example, 21.3% of girls scored an A grade compared to 15.4% of boys. While in physics 36.4% of girls scored an A grade compared to 30.7 % of boys.
But after such scientific success at A level, just over 15% of engineering students are female, according to a survey by the Engineering Council UK. And of the students who do study engineering, the majority of them don’t pursue it as a career but take their skills to other business sectors when they graduate from university.
This leaves a great big hole of untapped engineering talent in this country. ‘The industry needs a diverse workforce to ensure it continues to thrive,’ says Robert Beahan, The Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET) communications manager. ‘Statistics show that companies which have a mixture of men and women in senior positions perform much better. Women need to be designing the products of the future.’
Engineering organisations are actively on the look out for women because of this shortfall of talent. So why are the recruitment figures so low? According to the Engineering Council it’s due to a lack of opportunities, a male-dominated work culture and the impossibility of juggling work with home commitments. These are the common illusions of engineering. But what is the reality? ‘Today’s engineering world means that there are exciting opportunities for women to succeed in a diverse range of jobs,’ says Robert. ‘It really isn’t all about hard hats and dirty overalls. The winners and finalists in our annual Young Woman Engineer of the year awards support this.’
The success stories
There are a few women who are bucking the trend and making waves in this male-dominated profession.
Ruth Amos won the 2006 Young Engineer for Britain for her StairSteady stair-climbing invention at the age of 19. An idea that started as a GCSE coursework project was officially launched in 2007 while she was studying for her A levels. The young inventor is taking three years out to build up the business, and hopes to distribute the product abroad. She’s now a keen promoter of enterprise to young people, as well as being an ambassador for women in engineering. ‘I’m in a male-dominated environment and for me, it’s all about being who I am and not even thinkiang that I have to dress like a man or that I have to act like a man,’ she told Management Today magazine.
Another engineering success is Emily Cummins, 22, who invented an environmentally friendly fridge that runs without using electricity, which she developed during her gap year in Africa. She was named Cosmopolitan magazine’s Save-The-Planet Pioneer at the Ultimate Women of the Year Awards in 2008. And Hanna Sykulska-Lawrence (seen on page 102) who at the age of 27 worked on a NASA space project studying the planet Mars using data collected from a robotic laboratory is yet another award-winning engineer.
But despite these high-flying young female engineers paving the way for others, it is how engineering is perceived by the majority of people that could be a factor in putting women off. Let’s face it, messing around with heavy machinery, getting your hands dirty and having to wear unflattering overalls probably sums it up for most of us. In fact, according to the IET, engineering is all around us and it significantly improves our lives every single day. ‘From hidden components like electronic circuits through to large scale complexes like Hong Kong airport, engineering makes a difference to society,’ Robert says. ‘Practically everything that makes our lives better and safer and more interesting has started as an engineering idea in someone’s head’.
Engineers are developing energy sources and new processes so that recycling is easier, helping to slow climate change. And it makes a difference to our health. ‘Engineers help give us clean, safe water, new medicines and medical techniques to make the world a safer, healthier place,’ he adds.
So not so dull and dirty after all. And with jobs for young people in major shortfall at the moment because of the current economic climate, becoming an engineer is an attractive option for women (and men) who want an interesting and challenging career which is intellectually and financially rewarding.