Tuesday, 30 September 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)

  • 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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