Tuesday, 29 July 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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  • Think Claire & Sarah hit it on the head. Gender diversity in engineering is more about a wider cultural issue of what tradition tells us is supposed to be a mans/womans job. Questions about prestige & professionalism are more about why people do/don't enter eng in general.

    While getting women into eng will always be an uphill battle until wider culture changes are addressed, companies do have a role. They can help change the cultural perception of eng & should help because its in their own interests to do so.

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  • I have been working in engineering for many years and have always found engineers to be sexist and old fashioned. The working practices, eg 42 hour weeks, are not conducive to raising children and unless you have a big beer belly, play golf and go out drinking there is no chance of promotion.

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  • At university approx 50% on my year (1997) of students in Chemical Engineering (including me) were women. I now lead a team of engineers.
    Approx 1/3 of my team of are currently women. To me the gender of my team members is an irrelelvance, what matters is how good they are at their job.
    I personally find there is nothing more patronising than making a big deal of gender. Setting up special women only groups seems to be a current trend I find partiularly annoying, to me it seems to be sending all the wrong messages.

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  • Your lead-in picture to this article shows a couple of people in hard hats. Is that a good start to your good intentions?

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  • At least one of them is a woman.

  • It was my privilege, when I started teaching [at age 50!] Engineering topics at Coventry University, to have as head of School Professor Stan Harvey. Professor Harvey had initiated a course European Business & Technology EBAT- which offered modules in commercial matters, technology and a language. Our students were Erasmus exchanged with our various European partners. It was probably the best, most useful, wide covering Course I have ever encountered. [I said many times, I wish I had been able to attend such a course rather than my 'pure applied science' course. St Andrews 1960-64.] Students had technical competence, business and commercial experience, and the ability to work in an European language.

    My particular module was entitled Industrial Systems and design- a catch all for me-and a series of outstanding industry based/biased staff and tutors who came into our 'lectorials or Tutures (tortures as many students initially considered them!) to bring the reality of commerce, industry, technology and European links together and offer students a sight of the real world. The world I and my co-presenters had had the opportunity to work within for 30 years of practical Engineering.

    We had on that Course about 35% girls and they did very well. They could appreciate that the oily rag/wrench element of the public perception of what an Engineer actually does was so much rubbish, by actually engaging in the reality of the world of an Engineer's work.

    If any of my students are reading this: I hope your lives have continued to give you as much success and benefit as teaching you did for me.

    Mike B

    PS I read this very day that companies are yet again complaining about the weakness in employ ability of recent graduates. I do believe that no-one who graduated with the EBAT behind them from Coventry would be other than excellent in any technical. business and European/international encompassing employment.

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  • Mike B. Were 35% of the students on your course really "girls" or is there a chance they might have been women...?

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  • I did consider using of the word female -honestly- but that in my view is simply a biological term, and not really gracious?
    The article to which we are all responding and the related one -is of course headed female Engineers I think I was subconsciously trying to make the point that when students arrive aged 18 ish, they are boys and girls -and it is as girls, and still at school that we are surely seeking to encourage them into our profession.

    Go back 50+ years. There was one 'girl' amongst 60+ boys (me included) at St Andrews starting applied science. Sally D wanted to study Civil Engineering, but was told by the Prof, 'that is not a job for a lady!' and she had to do electrical. Happily things have moved on since then.
    Mike B

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  • The article is termed "Calling all women engineers" for a reason.

    I would note the number of men who have given voice to their opinion on what us "girls" think on this.

    Could there be something for the industry to learn in this do you think?!

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  • Sarah S
    The fact that the so many comments are from men reflects the fact that most engineers & (this is just a hunch) most of the Engineers' commenters are indeed men.

    Solutions to the gender imbalance need to be led by women whose opinions on the subject are probably more informed than mine but in an industry still dominated by my gender its vital that men consider this our problem too and work on implementing solutions.

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  • As an aside, there was (still is?) one society where certainly in the 70s the number of women/female/girls? engaged in Engineering was equal, if not more than men/male. And that was the Soviet Union.
    Interestingly, though sadly of course, a significant proportion of the men who might have held posts in technology and Engineering were dead. Killed in WWII.

    Babuska (surely spelt incorrectly) -grandmothers- was the word used to describe that large cadre of older women in the USSR who did so many of the manual/menial tasks reconstructing that society: a generation who's partners or potential partners had been lost. And in the textile factory in Kursk where I spent 6 weeks in 1970, the majority of the middle management, Engineers and textile technologists were female. It was noticeable that the demography of that society was skewed to youth and women. The State then positively encouraged marriage -bachelors of both genders paid double income tax!- to rebuild the population.

    I did read some years ago that it was the loss of the 55,000 flyers (mostly from Bomber Command, exclusively male, and most trained/educated to a high technical standard which was one cause of our Nation's weakness in the 60s to 80s. here were a group who might/should/would have taken senior technical posts in industry and commerce, but were again missing from the demography.

    Mike B

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  • Oh, for heaven’s sake! The lack of Women in Engineering is no more an issue than the lack of Men in nursing. It’s a non-issue. The big issue is the general lack of engineering competence in school-leavers of any gender.

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  • @Justin Gudgeon:
    Completely disagree on the first point, and fully agree on the second. I’d argue that your points are not unrelated. Engineering requires exceptional mental capacity. We as a society simply cannot afford to lose good brains. If there is a systemic reason why many of those we lose are female, it MUST be addressed.

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  • One thing that is really important is for male engineers to listen to their female counterparts. I have lost count of the amount of times I have been told how I 'should' react or feel on encountering sexism in my day to day job. Especially frustrating is being told that something is not a big deal, by someone who never has and never will have to experience it themselves.

    I suspect most of these people are well intentioned. However, if you want to be an ally to women in engineering the most important thing you can do is listen to their opinions and not dismiss them.

    'Sexist' is more often than not a way to describe an action, not a person. So if someone tells you that something you did or said is sexist, don't dismiss it out of hand because you know that you are not a sexist person. Use it as an opportunity to learn. If everyone took this approach we'd be a long way to eradicating sexism from the industry.

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  • I've just completed my first year of my engineering degree, I am a late learner and approaching my 30's with two children under two, and I was told, in no less archaic way, and by someone in a management position at my current job, that I should switch to another degree, because no one would employ a female engineer with kids when there's men to chose from.
    Pretty sure it's that kind of attitude that stops women from becoming engineers.
    (I haven't swapped degrees, and I don't intend to, I may have come to it late but I am loving doing it, and my 18 month old loves 'helping' with my course work.)

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  • My male colleagues are about to go to a large engineering expo, where they fully expect rubber-clad umbrella-carrying promo-girls on every stall. One female colleague is currently undergoing the indignity of ordering lab equipment from a company with a scantily-clad busty blonde woman on every web page and piece of literature, pouting and getting surprisingly turned on by miniature furnaces.

    I agree with all of the comments about social conditioning, image problems, and widespread sexism in engineering firms (both intentional bullying and unintended ingrained discriminatory practises) - I've witnessed them all too. But just how hard are engineering firms really trying?

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