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A Woman’s Place is at the Lathe?

As your plucky “man in the workshop” I have decided to bite the bullet and step in the minefield to grab the bull by the horns. As I take a furtive glance up from my terminal I see somewhere between 10 and 20 design engineers, of these exactly 0 are female.

In fact I have worked in 5 or 6 engineering companies and the total number of female engineers I have worked with is 4. Ever since I was at college, which you can take it from me was many moons ago, the role of women in engineering has been seen as a cause for much lamenting and wringing of hands.

Today there is still much vocal concern, as can be witnessed by both public proclamations from Richard Noble and the recent furore over the use of “Booth Babes” at CES in Las Vegas. I wonder whether the lack of women is a problem that can be solved though? Perhaps women just don’t want to be engineers?

At this point I feel the need to don a philosophical tin hat and make a few statements. Firstly I am one hundred percent committed to equality, both in pay and the opportunity to pursue any career path. However I also firmly believe that recognition of the need for equality does not mean an acceptance that men and women are the same.

Secondly what I am talking about here is trends and percentages. There will always be women who want to be engineers and I think that they should be encouraged, but my thoughts relate to a possible majority. Lastly this does not mean I think that women are somehow generally incapable of being engineers, we only need look back to the last war to see large numbers of women being more than capable in every tier of our profession.

However the fact remains that we have had decades actively trying to encourage women to become engineers with seemingly little success and I cannot help but think that the differing mindset and interests of the genders may lie at the root of this. Of course I could be entirely off beam and despite the huge social changes over the past 30 years there could still be a barrier in the “nurture” stages of a girl’s life; but if I am right then funds, time and effort actively used trying to redress the balance can be seen as a waste and can be subsequently redirected.

There is a further trigger to these ruminations in that, if I look a little further down the office, our marketing department is about 10% male and 90% female. I cannot say whether this is representative of their profession but there certainly seems to be less angst about it. By the way - as regards the “Booth Babes”, I just wish some sectors of industry would grow up and move into more enlightened times.

Click here to find out what The Engineer thought about the subject back in the 1920s

Readers' comments (5)

  • As a female Mechanical Engineer who graduated 1 of 2 females in a class of 150, I didn't get much in the way of support. I chose therefore to head in the direction of Sales Engineering and have had a good deal more success in this area than my fellow graduates in straight engineering. Perhaps my personality lends itself to the my chosen profession and subsequent success. However, my professors were not that engaging. Besides the thought of being one of 200 engineers working at terminals designing the arm bracket of a D20 tractor was just a death knell in my book.

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  • As a Design Engineering university lecturer, I would dearly love to see more female students (current year 2 cohort = 0), if anything to balance male students regressing to childhood with no female influence around. We indeed wring our hands over it, but as my colleague who teaches Fashion said, nobody is bothered that in her cohort of 80 students, there are only 6 men, all gay. I guess subjects do live up to their stereotypes....

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  • This subject has run for years, and is now presented as an issue of resources (lack of engineers to support economy at least in UK/US contexts) & STEM teaching, rather than equality per-se. A related discussion re the number of females working in IT indicates that there is much more than just equality involved. Clearly women and many young people are voting with their feet.

    I think Wendy Sourcie’s comment is important “Besides the thought of being one of 200 engineers working at terminals designing the arm bracket of a D20 tractor was just a death knell in my book”.

    I’ve often felt the same myself and I think this aspect needs digging into, taking account cultural and social changes over the past 70 years to get to the bottom of this rather than just anecdotes from individuals. I’m not saying it is the only issue, but generations from the 60s onwards (myself included) have both taken and been encouraged to take a more individual(istic) stance to their lives, in some ways flattering them though ideas such as personal creativity (even saying children are creative because they are not encumbered by the straight jacket of traditional thinking and ideas etc… (i.e. knowledge gained through hard work)) as well as the influence of the counter-culture generally).

    Related to ideas based around short term gratification (whether it be consumables, education or being able to be a ‘star’ and stand out from the crowd) all young people, not just women, see working (or at least starting out) in a career where they are just ‘a cog in the machine’ as anathema. This is why Design is seen as being more attractive than Engineering (even though most designers end up pretty disappointed and poorly paid).

    This is really about being adults. In a way young people have more opportunities to choose fashionable youthful or more ‘touchy feely’ (trad: feminine) people oriented careers in marketing (which I do not denigrate) and product design where personal imprints can be made, than in more traditionally masculine (as used in old fashioned meaning) and dare I say adult industries or jobs, where 'play' is a lesser part of the job. I am not denigrating feminism or ‘feminine’ here, just trying to provide a historical frame work with in which to see these developments. I think this should be explored, if we are to progress.

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  • It's an old argument, but I believe that part of the answer lies in the title of this article. Until Engineering (yes, a deliberate capital) is seen by the public as a creative profession, rather than being 'stood at a lathe' all day, women will be reluctant to enter a most rewarding career. Let's face it, a lot of men are put off as well. Are you aware that the IQ of Engineers lies in the top 2% of the population, above lawyers and accountants, whereas engineers are average?

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  • Of course it is, and anywhere else a woman wants and has the equal opportunity to be. We just have not had enough time to test the hypothesis that there are evolutionary reasons for engineering to be a man's profession. However, we do have live experiments on what constitutes a feminine or a masculine job: in countries where women are not allowed to work outside the home, men do all the jobs. For me that settles the question if there is an inherent distinction.

    It is enough to look at the Vienna Philharmonic to see how ridiculous it is to have only men (I know that they added recently a few token women) in any contemporary workplace. They would not allow a harpist to be a woman and we all agree that it is a "feminine" job?!

    There and almost everywhere it is simply discrimination, in early childhood, in education at all levels and in employment.

    Only after we have insured a fair and equal exposure of boys and girls to all professions and see that women will just not go or stay in engineering or at the lathe we might conclude that there is a nature, not nurture, basis for it.

    On the subject of "babes" at trade shows and generally in advertisement, guess who comes up with the idea? The 10% of men in marketing. Whenever I attend an auto show or machinery trade show, I feel sad, amused and angry that young women in lame dresses are used to sell a car or a lathe. I am tempted to ask them if that is really what they want to do, if they would not prefer to be the engineer who designed or manufactured the product they are smiling around. Who buys a lathe because they were convinced by the young women in the booth?

    I have two main concerns in what regards engineering: first, that we do not draw all potential minds and talent if we do not try to achieve full parity between man and women (to mimic the population and since, as I believe, women and men are the same when it comes to learned skills and formal professions); second, if we continue to make it a boring, rigid, less socially prestigious, less creative work combined with the delocalization of industry in the advanced economies, it will become irrelevant if there are enough women, there will be nobody going into engineering. We do experience both these issue in the US today. But we are working to change that.

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