Saturday, 26 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


Readers' comments (25)

  • 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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