Friday, 28 November 2014
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Calling all women engineers

A glance through The Engineer’s 1970s archive - replete with ads featuring scantily clad models clutching spanners or draped over pieces of industrial equipment - is a striking illustration of how industry’s attitudes to gender equality have changed in the past few decades.

Although to be fair to our recent forbears, attitudes 30 or 40 years ago probably represented a vast improvement on the Victorian mentality.

Commenting on the issue in January 1920 The Engineer declared that ‘nature has not fitted women for engineering. ‘Though here and there,’ it grudgingly admitted, ‘one may break away from the norm, just as we may find now and then a great woman novelist or a tolerable women artist.’ (you can read the article here)

Thankfully things have changed both in industry, and - I’m pleased to say - on The Engineer. Gender diversity is a hot topic for all of the big engineering firms, institutions and associations, and there are tentative signs that the number of female engineers is creeping up. What’s more, if the findings of a survey published earlier this week are truly representative, 98 per cent of those women who do pursue a career in engineering find their jobs rewarding (You can read more on Atkins’ “Britain’s got talented female engineers” here).

Thankfully, engineering advertising campaigns like this one are largely a thing of the past

Thankfully, engineering advertising campaigns like this one are largely a thing of the past

But gender diversity remains a pressing issue. Though attitudes are changing, the UK still has the lowest proportion of female engineers in the EU. And, as we’ve argued many times before, tapping into the talent of just half of the UK’s population is no way to address a skills crisis. If the UK’s engineering economy is to grow, it’s vital that more girls and women are inspired to embark on a career in engineering.

Back in 2011, we published a special supplement dedicated to the issue of women in engineering (Click here to download a PDF). We looked at some of the reasons behind industry’s gender gap, asked why efforts to address this imbalance had stalled, and argued that industry needed to do much more than simply pay lip-service to a glossy corporate notion of diversity.

This November we’ll be revisiting the issue. Rather than reiterating the same tired old calls for “something” to be done, we’re going to focus on practical examples of how engineering firms have addressed the gender diversity issue.

This is where you come in. We want to hear from engineers of both genders about what, if anything, your employers are doing to attract and retain female engineers. And if you’re a woman, do you feel that your career progression is hindered by your gender? Do you regularly encounter sexism? Or is your workplace a haven of equality?

We’re really keen to hear your accounts - the more candid the better - and will obviously, if you wish, guarantee your anonymity. If you’re interested in adding your thoughts to this important debate, please post your comments below or contact me at jon.excell@centaur.co.uk

 


Readers' comments (25)

  • Don't think it has anything to do what employers do, the reason for a lack of female engineers is to be found in the British attitude to engineering as a whole.

    Who in their right mind would choose 'Engineering' over HR, Teaching, Law or Medicine?

    Till that is answered then sadly there will be a 50% waste of the UK's engineering talent.

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  • Absolutely down to image. Oily rags rather than mathematics and design. Also it is seen as being below other professions due to this image/status and low salary. If you are going to university with this in mind you are going to choose accounting or law instead.

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  • This doesn't really explain why there are around 90,000 (mostly male) students studying engineering and technology - more than those studying medicine, physical sciences, maths, computer science, law, languages, history or education (http://www.hesa.ac.uk).

  • A lot of it is to do with stereotypes. In Britain the stereotype of an Engineer is usually a grubby man in a hard hat with a spanner, a builders bum and a very geeky personality. I'm not saying everybody's fooled, I wouldn't be studying Engineering if I was.

    On the other hand I don't think it's so much about sexism either, although I do come across it occasionally, being told by fellow male engineering student that I should go make them a sandwich but then again you get that everywhere, it's more to do with the connotations with the job and lack of awareness in schools about the vast and wonderful opportunities which Engineering has to offer which is causing this problem.

    I remember on one of my visits to a local school whilst doing a STEM presentation I asked the class who knew what an Engineer was and only one student could give me a relatively accurate answer, the rest either had no idea or gave me the description of a builder, plumber or electrician. But by the end of the session, they were all very interested in Engineering, and a few of the girls even considered it as a career.

    I think if children were given a better knowledge of some of the things Engineering has to offer, you would see alot more women.

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  • I think Brian M is right – or at least he is looking at things in cultural terms – This debate IS ‘tired’ (as it the related ‘getting young people into engineering one’ but whilst looking at just the (welcome) cases of what employers are practically doing will be interesting, I think that the wider impacts are likely to be marginal.

    A cultural analysis – may be anathema to ‘practical’ engineers – but if engineering is to be a large part of how we create the future, whether it be confidentially increasing the human foot print or by developing and applying new technologies – then why business people and governments have lost the confidence and ambition to lead is something needs to be analysed. The article assumes that sexism and gender equality are the problems – in some cases they may be – but I think women/the young and the reasons they avoid engineering go way beyond what employers do.

    It may be argued that in the UK more than most countries engineering is suffering from a ‘crisis of purpose’ – is it primarily to mess up the world, to fix the mess or to primarily provide growth (fixing any mess with some of the wealth that has been generated)? Until this is clarified the question of why women or young people avoid engineering is unlikely to be answered.

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  • I think women are more senstitive to this image than men. Even then the amount of people that do not continue in engineering after graduation and later in their career is staggering. Even those that do quickly progress into management.

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  • A lot of it starts at a very young age. Fathers do "manly" things with their sons and a lot of the confidence and knowledge of how things work and trying things out starts there. Girls have a lot of catching up to do. I didn't really know about engineering until I half way through my physics degree and realised thinking about things wasn't enough. I wanted to get stuck into things and get my hands dirty.

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  • There is a difference in attitudes towards engineers and engineering as a discipline between Continental Europe and Anglosphere. On the continent, engineering is still a profession, and entrance to it is harder than in Anglosphere. Combined with the prestige issue, is the fact that engineering for majority of practitioners in Anglosphere has evolved towards a blue collar white collar job, where they have become workers akin to labourers of the previous era.

    Imbalance of home/work for engineers is proverbial, making it much harder for women to accommodate because of their still greater involvement in child rearing. Stress levels that go with engineering require military like mental strength and discipline, something that many men still find easier to cope with than many women. Equality is a very important and noble goal, but reality of our biological makeup and our ingrained social roles is that we are different.

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  • I think its a mistake to push any group into a career that perhaps they are not, for all sorts of reasons, including those we cannot control, really interested in. Better to focus on attracting suitable people into the industry, regardless of race or sex.

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  • Education for women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics needs to be encouraged. Our colleges and universities are not graduating enough females with science or engineering degrees. Graduates with the right kinds of backgrounds for data scientist – computer science, statistics, machine learning – are coming out of the universities, but they are not coming out in sufficient numbers. In working with IT staffing agencies, I know it's important to know their true professional goals. Help them achieve their growth goals and help them establish a career growth path.

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  • In my career in Engineering I have definitely been subjected to repeated incidents of gender-based bullying tactics by senior managers I have worked with or for. However, they have been in the minority.

    I don't think it has anything to do with the image of engineering or (odd irritating exceptions aside) the misogeny of individuals working in the industry.

    It is entirely due to social and cultural conditioning. It is to do with exactly the same factors that mean there is a huge gender bias in cleaning jobs, nursing, stay at home parenting.

    The single biggest thing the engineering industry could do to change the bias is to challenge the status quo.

    Why has Lego only just released its first woman scientist figure? Surely there was a light-hearted silly season press release to be had in the past 50 years asking Lego to be more representative of the industry.

    Or just more coverage of engineers working on amazing projects and who just happen to be women?

    To paraphrase Sue Perkins, being a woman is about the 73rd most interesting thing about me.

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