Aston Vice-Chancellor Julia King

Prof Julia King thinks that more work needs to be done to improve gender balance in engineering. Stuart Nathan reports

One of the most senior female engineers in the UK, Prof Julia King currently occupies the post of vice-chancellor at Aston University, the technology-focused institution in the centre of Birmingham. But an anecdote from an earlier part of her career, as a senior manager at Rolls-Royce, illustrates for her how hard it can be to gain a foothold as a woman in the profession.

’On one of my shopfloors I had one female engineering apprentice among 40 or 50 male apprentices and machine operators, and the teasing was terrible,’ she said. ’You can’t be watching all the time. I think employers are taking it more seriously now, but we need to be paying even more attention.’

For King, as for many who’ve worked on both the academic and industrial side of engineering, gender balance is an issue with many sides. It starts with encouraging girls to study the physical sciences and continuing to A-level, then attracting them into applying for engineering courses at university or apprenticeships into engineering companies. It continues at work, trying to ensure that women enjoy engineering as a
profession, contribute fully in the workplace, and progress in their careers.

’When I started at Rolls-Royce [in 1994], the gender issue was just coming onto the company’s radar,’ she said. ’I was one of the two or three most senior women there for my entire time with the company, and there was a recognition that we were only tapping into half of the talent pool.’

“I had one female engineering apprentice among 40 or 50 male apprentices and machine operators, and the teasing was terrible”

Why it is that women shun engineering is a mystery for King, as she is well aware that the situation isn’t set in stone. ’When I was a child, if you went to a doctor’s surgery and wanted to see a female doctor, you were lucky if there was one; at that stage there were 10-12 per cent women on medical courses in the UK. Now, we have more than 60 per cent. Of course, many of our medics are doing the same A-levels that we require for engineering. So there’s plenty of evidence that women can do these subjects.’

Indeed, one area of engineering where women are well represented is biomedical engineering; a well-regarded course at King’s previous employer, Imperial College London, is 50 per cent female. ’It’s a really tough course; it has mechanical engineering, it has electrical and control engineering. It’s actually quite similar to aeronautical engineering, except the context isn’t an aircraft, it’s the human body.’

This, she said, indicates strongly that it isn’t the subject that turns women off. ’It’s how the engineering industries are presented. We need to do a lot more to present them in the context of the impact they have on society and also as really exciting courses that are solving some of society’s and the globe’s greatest problems, rather than as subjects that are dry and analytical.’

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Julia King – biography
Vice-chancellor, Aston University

Education
1972 Studied natural sciences at Cambridge University (New Hall), specialising in materials science
1978 Completed PhD in fracture mechanics

Career
1980 Senior lecturer at Nottingham University
1987 Returned to Cambridge University as lecturer in materials science
1994 Joined Rolls-Royce; positions included director of advanced engineering for Industrial Power Group and managing director for Fan Systems
1997 Elected as a fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering
2002 Named chief executive of Institute of Physics
2004 Principal of engineering faculty at Imperial College London
2004-09 Served as board member at the Technology Strategy Board
2006 Appointed vice-chancellor at Aston University
2010 Named as UK’s Low-Carbon Business Ambassador