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Shadow science minister Chi Onwurah

In October 1984 I left Newcastle to study electrical engineering at Imperial College of Science and Technology. I was not too surprised that only 12 per cent of my classmates were girls – I knew I was ’a pioneer’. I had a Caroline Haslett Memorial scholarship and an Engineering Council scholarship. I knew that they, and many others, were working hard to close the gender gap.

Twenty-seven years later, women make up 43 per cent of GPs, 41 per cent of solicitors and even 22 per cent of MPs. But the percentage of
engineering undergraduates who are women is still 12 per cent. In a quarter of a century it has not improved at all. Women make up two thirds of biology students and 42 per cent of chemistry students, but their participation in undergraduate physics, mathematics, engineering and technology has not changed significantly.

The picture is no better in the jobs market – engineering is one of four STEM professions that have seen no major improvements in gender balance. Of nearly 13 million women working in the UK, only 5.3 per cent are employed in SET occupations, against almost one third of the UK’s 15.4 million male employees.

This represents a huge loss for us all – the loss to the country in a talent pool half the size it could be; the loss to society of the types of engineering that might come from a nonmale perspective; and the loss to women in not having entry to these rewarding careers.

But there is an additional, intangible, but hugely important loss: engineering will never have the position it merits at the heart of our society and economy if it remains the preserve of such a narrow section of society. Given the economic, climatic and social challenges we face as a nation, it is imperative that engineering graduates from its current position as an exclusively male eccentricity.

That said, there are many organisations doing excellent work to encourage girls into STEM and retain them in STEM careers and many individual engineers are also keen to help. During my career I often worked for brilliant male managers keen to encourage women in SET, but it was never their absolute priority.

As a woman engineer I often felt excluded, but I realised I was just not being actively included. All groups have their common language. I had no problem with the geek speak, but the sporting metaphors I didn’t understand or the sexual allusions I didn’t want to kept me silent when I should have spoken up.

“I acknowledge there’s an element of chicken and egg, but it is not acceptable to blame the egg”

The point is that it’s not good enough to say that girls just don’t like engineering. In India the proportion of women enrolled on engineering degrees in 2000 was twice what it is in the UK and that’s despite the lower rates of literacy for girls there. Are Indian women less feminine?

The UK has the lowest proportion of women engineers in the EU – less than one third that of Latvia. Are Latvian women more left-brained?

I am not underestimating the cultural and social challenges. We suffer from a series of vicious circles where the lack of positive images of female engineers reduces the likelihood of us having female engineers to generate positive images. I acknowledge there is an element of chicken and egg, but it is not acceptable to blame the egg. We need to break the circles and we need to do it now.

I would like to see engineers challenging the BBC and other media outlets for the poverty of their engineering coverage. I would like to see the industry championing engineering as part of our culture – a prize for the best portrayal on TV might be a good place to start. And I would like to see engineers demanding that the government reverses its cuts to the funding of science and science in society.

As CaSE recently said: ’It is time to shift from good practice that encourages gentle change to achieving real and rapid results.’

Chi Onwurah MP
Shadow minister for innovation and science

Chi Onwurah is a British MP representing Newcastleupon- Tyne Central and is also the shadow minister for innovation and science

Prior to Chi’s election to Parliament in May 2010, she worked as head of telecoms technology at UK regulator Ofcom, focusing on the implications for competition and regulation of the services and technologies associated with Next Generation Networks

Prior to Ofcom, Chi was a partner in US technology consultancy Hammatan Ventures. Previously she was director of market development with Teligent, a Global Wireless Local Loop operator and director of product strategy at GTS

Chi is a chartered engineer with a BEng in electrical engineering from Imperial College London and an MBA from Manchester Business School. She was born in Wallsend and attended Kenton Comprehensive School in Newcastle, where she was elected the school’s ’MP’ in mock elections aged 17

Readers' comments (6)

  • May be in Latvia and India there isn’t the near obsessional fixation with climate change (the real one not the one alluded to in this article), carbon counting and cutting back (both in terms of consumption of ‘stuff’ and financially). It’s not the whole story, but when big bold engineering projects in the UK are not really on the agenda – compared with China especially – and the smaller ones exist with a back drop that it was engineering and ambition and creating a bigger human foot print that caused the (supposed) mess we are in, then low (physical) impact and service type jobs such as marketing, law, design, heathcare, HR and even IT seem more respectable.

    There is absolutely nothing wrong with those jobs but when remaking the world through engineering - even if it goes against the grain of nature – is seen as slightly dodgy – then the perception maybe that engineering is no longer as noble a profession as it was,, so young people in general (and the potential expansion of the profession by young women) find it easy to be attracted to activities that go along with what is seen as nature – or fate - rather than the old (largely) masculine trait of attempting to dominate nature.

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  • Fantastic how women are doing. Its a pity that women have the monopoly on our greatest assets .... our children .... who are now dumped on others to bring up because women are out fighting for equality.

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  • In the bad old days engineering needed a lot more muscle power than it does now (at least in most cases) and i believe that this was the root cause of it being a male dominated profession.
    Now it's not the case and we are losing a wealth of talent by not encouraging women to become engineers.
    It's not surprising that engineering in the UK doesn't have the same status as accounting, the law and medicine. Most people think an engineer is someone who mends cars and washing machines.
    Not intending to be critical of the men who do these jobs, a lot of them probably earn more than us

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  • 'Its a pity that women have the monopoly on our greatest assets .... our children .... who are now dumped on others to bring up because women are out fighting for equality.' Since when was bringing up children only the responsibility of women? Get into the 21st century. Why is it more appopriate for the woman to have to give up her job than for both parents to share the care giving?

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  • Turning the question around, why aren't you still in engineering?

    I do agree we need more engineers (not just women), but we also need the jobs to employ them (with further training), and the support of the government (all parties) to actually promote the growth of designing/making "stuff" rather than shuffling money about.....

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  • Paul's comment was interesting to me - "May be ... there isn’t the near obsessional fixation with climate change .... carbon counting and cutting back (both in terms of consumption of ‘stuff’ and financially)."

    As a self confessed carbon counting stuff reducer who also see finance as a major driver of ignorance in relation to natural systems, I find it hard to see myself as obsessed IN COMPARISON say to a Merchant Banker, an Oil Company Executive, or a Car Manufacturer. Discuss.

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