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Some engineers wear hard hats. Even women.

Engineering was unusually visible in the UK this week. Even more unusually it was Britain’s small but significant cohort of women engineers that took the limelight thanks to the first National Women in Engineering Day.

It was a remarkably successful undertaking – especially given the limited resource of the Women’s Engineering Society, which organised the day without major sponsorship – that aimed to celebrate the work that women do in engineering and promote the profession to girls.

Over 80 events took place across the country with more than 200 schools receiving resource packs, and media coverage appearing on TV and in most of the national newspapers.

One article I particularly enjoyed reading was a BBC piece on some of the young women apprentices and former apprentices working to upgrade Heysham nuclear power station. It gave a voice to a group that isn’t often heard from and helped dispel stereotypes of the kinds of jobs women enjoy or “can” do.

But articles like this – and indeed most attempts to recruit more people into engineering – always receive criticism from people who think they send the wrong message.

One point made to me was that the young women featured were in “trade” not “technical” apprenticeships because they were learning to weld. This continued into a discussion of how bad it was for the profession’s image that all the photos used in the article were of women in hard hats.

This is a topic we’ve covered before on The Engineer, and it’s one that those looking to promote engineering (and those in the media covering it) should think about carefully.

The number of engineers who wear hard hats on a frequent basis is a tiny proportion of the total: in the last four years I’ve spent reporting on and visiting working engineers I’ve had to wear a hard hat on probably less than five occasions (though this is partly due to the kind of work The Engineer is most interested in).

And yet the majority of pictures of “engineers” you see in media reports tend to be clad with the offending safety gear. Certainly there were far too many on display during National Women in Engineering Day. It’s usually a lazy shorthand way for journalists to convey “engineering” without explaining what that actually means.

The argument goes that this sends the wrong message about what the engineering profession is really like, which in turn discourages young people who would much rather work in a high-tech office. I, for one, would love to see much broader and more representative coverage of engineering.

But that also doesn’t mean we should be afraid of promoting those areas of engineering that do involve hard hats: they form a substantial and important part of the profession.

A single article about on-site engineers at a nuclear power station isn’t enough to demonstrate to young people (including women) what an engineering career is about. But that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be published at all, especially when it’s focused on a group of people that many don’t even realise exist.

There’s also some dangerous thinking behind the argument that examples of hard-hat engineering will only put women off, because it plays into those stereotypes I mentioned.

The women in the BBC article have long hair and painted nails; one describes herself as ‘girly’ and another used to be hairdresser. At the same time the enthusiasm and excitement they have for their technical, physically demanding jobs is obvious. Having to wear a hard hat didn’t put them off.

And no, welding isn’t the same as engineering, but the main woman featured in the story began by learning the trade and is now a project engineer with a foundation degree.

Engineering is a broad church. We should promote all aspects of it and all routes into it. But let’s not patronise young people by assuming what they will and won’t like.

Readers' comments (13)

  • It's a pity that an obvious opportunity was missed during this years' TT Motocycle races which ended 2 weeks ago. The sport coverage interviewed a young woman stripping and rebuilding the race winning, record breaking BMW engine ridden by Michael Dunlop. She was a member of an expert team from BMW supporting the company's TT project. What an inspration!

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  • The stereo-type media picture of an architect is of a man, wearing a hard hat and hi-viz jacket, reading a 'blue' print leaning against the bonnet of a Saab .
    However the public seem to know the difference between an architect and a builder. I wonder why that is?

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  • The image of having to wear hard hats and welding would have definitely put me off 'engineering'.

    The term engineering will always in the mind of Joe Public UK be the person who fixes the washing machine!

    Perhaps we need to call professional engineers 'Applied scientists', which is exactly what the professions is!

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  • In England, everyone is an engineer who can hold a screw driver without killing herself.

    In Germany you are only allowed to call yourself engineer after completing at least three years university.

    Over there, a mechanic is a mechanic, an electrician is an electrician, a plumber is a plumber, a driver is a driver.

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  • I agree with you that a piece on engineering featuring hard hats and welding should not be dismissed because it risks sending the wrong message. As long as it is factual and used in the right way then it is fine with me.
    However, I do have a general issue with the BBC and the coverage given to engineering or manufacturing. Any such piece has film of either someone welding, a man in greasy overalls using a pillar drill, or someone loading sheet metal into an old press. In general, the editorial staff at the BBC has no clue as to what engineering or manufacturing are actually about. One of the odd exceptions is Steph McGovern who was once an engineer at Black and Decker, but there needs to be many more people like her in the mainstream media before we start to get a truly balanced view.
    In the meantime we will have to continue to find ways to counteract the views of the ‘metropolitan elite’ that engineering and manufacturing are for those not quite clever enough to work in the service industries. Keep up the good work!

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  • In the Oil & Gas sector, engineers like myself do most of our design work sat behind a desk, but also make visits to offshore platforms and onshore plants where we all wear hard hats. So which box would we be pigeon holed into?

    I'd also like to add that some of the very best graduate engineers I've ever worked with have been women.
    It's just such a shame that some of them get married and have babies and never return to work.....but that's a whole different topic for discussion.

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  • Usually deskbound, I have had roles which require hard hats, especially in O&G. I used to work for the largest UK crane manufacturer and had to wear a hard hat on the lifting test pad. The secure feeling you got knowing that your head was protected should a 25t weight drop 100 feet and land on you was awe inspiring...

    Just because the young lady can strip and rebuild a motorbike doesn't make her an engineer. She may well be, of course, an engineer who can change out a gearbox. Much as I can change out the gearbox on my SAAB....

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  • Many of us wear hard hats because we have to visit sites on a regular basis through our responsibilities. This can be very much of a bonus for our employers and clients alike.

    For our employers its beneficial because they know we are keeping a handle on the project schedules which is financially beneficial.

    For our clients it shows we take our responsibilities seriously and we are approachable.

    In either event it means we can often pre-emt problems before they arise and provide with a solution to resolve or mitigate an issue before it becomes a major issue. Clients seem to like the personal touch and it generates human contact and a permanent two way flow of information and if they have a problem they can discuss it face to face.

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  • The association of a hard hat with the engineering profession is pretty deeply ingrained. I was really pleased to hear about NWED, and it didn't cross my mind to use any image other than a pink hard hat to highlight it when I wrote my own blog post.

    As a symbol, it's recognisable 'branding', much as the white lab coat or powdered wig and gavel are symbols of the medical and legal professions. It doesn't mean that every legal PA, barrister, lawyer or other lawmaker rocks around all day in white curls, and surely isn't taken as such by the general public.

    I think it's a dangerous path to go down trying to pick a different symbol of engineering to market the career to girls, and wholeheartedly agree with your conclusions here. Lets just show off the myriad aspects of engineering 'warts and all', and let people, whatever their gender, make up their own minds!

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  • Meja stereotypes? Lazy journalists? Perish the thought!

    Presumably having 'nanoseconds' (will they know what those are?) to set the scene of a TV piece (have they any clue about what technology is involved to both create, transmit and receive and disseminate the picture?) makes the meja rely on the images already in the public perception to do so!

    Military -Colonel Blimps, (complete with claret boozed faces) Clerics -dog collars and happy clappy or beards and thobs...), lawyers -wigs and gowns and quill pens and parchments and their hands out to grab the money from and their feet out to trip up honest citizens come on we've all been there and we do it too.

    Engineers can do for 10p what any fool can do for £1.00 surely says it all: though we spend most of our professional life anticipating, preparing for and keeping our clients out of trouble, NOT profiting from trying to solve it, once its happened.
    Am I Right (I am not!) or am I right?

    Mike B
    Clerics _

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