Communication key to gender balance

Features editor
The Engineer

We’re working on our upcoming Women in Engineering supplement at the moment, carrying out interviews ahead of producing the supplement itself next month. Some of the issues being raised by our interviewees give an interesting insight into how far the engineering sector has come with respect to addressing its gender imbalance — and how far it still has to go.

The main argument for attracting women into engineering is an extremely simple one. A sector which draws only on one gender is exploiting half of its available talent pool. It’s ridiculous to imagine that the skills and talents needed to become an engineer are restricted to men, and many women are being denied the chance to use their abilities in a field which needs all the innovative people it can get.

But talking yesterday to one of Britain’s most senior women engineers, Professor Julia King, vice-chancellor of Aston University, brought home just how many issues the sector is going to have to tackle before it can truly exploit the full potential of its female members. King, who spent ten years as a senior director at Rolls-Royce and has also been the Principal of Imperial College’s engineering faculty, believes that the problems begin in the education system and carry on all the way to the top of the profession.

Prof King believes that the problem in education isn’t with engineering per se, pointing out that Imperial’s medical engineering course is 50 per cent female. ‘We’ve seen something similar happening with medicine over the decades,’ she said. ‘When I was growing up, it was very, very rare to have a woman GP, but today, medical courses in the UK usually have more women on them than men. I’m a little bitter about that,’ she admitted, ‘because medicine’s nicking all the science-literate women that I’d like to see on engineering courses.’

The problems of sexism and laddishness that women face on shop floors are well known and must be tackled, King said, but there are still communication problems which have nothing to do with overt sexism but still form a barrier to women contributing in engineering environments, she said. ‘Conflict management is hugely important and not well enough understood,’ she said. It can be difficult for women to find their way onto project teams, she explained, because senior engineers tend to be men — purely because of the legacy gender split of the profession — and there is a strong tendency for people to recruit ‘people like themselves’.

But this isn’t the best way to go about things at all, she said. ‘Diverse teams are usually the most creative ones, and that’s because they tend to disagree with each other, and out of that disagreement we get ideas. But it has to be managed very carefully, and in particular you have to use conflict management to get that creative tension going but stop it short of confrontationalism.’

Interestingly, a trip last week to BAE Systems’ Govan shipyard revealed a shopfloor environment which seemed very female-friendly, with a good proportion of young women working through their engineering apprenticeships on the Aircraft Carrier project. The relatively large number of women on the shop floor might have been a factor in itself — King pointed out that women still tend to feel isolated until they make up at 20-25 percent of any group. Another factor might have been that many of the Govan girls are the daughters, sisters and nieces of male shipbuilders, many of whom work alongside them in Govan.

Not every girl going into engineering is going to have that advantage. But Julia King, who’s seen life as an engineer from several sides and levels, is adamant that we’re going to have to rethink a lot of attitudes if we’re to reach the goal of a workforce where everyone, regardless of gender, can contribute to their full ability.