There are far too many clichés in media coverage of engineering. But let’s not assume all young people want to work in an office.
Engineering was unusually visible in the UK this week. Even more unusually it was Britain’s small but significant cohort of women engineers that took the limelight thanks to the first National Women in Engineering Day.
It was a remarkably successful undertaking – especially given the limited resource of the Women’s Engineering Society, which organised the day without major sponsorship – that aimed to celebrate the work that women do in engineering and promote the profession to girls.
Over 80 events took place across the country with more than 200 schools receiving resource packs, and media coverage appearing on TV and in most of the national newspapers.
One article I particularly enjoyed reading was a BBC piece on some of the young women apprentices and former apprentices working to upgrade Heysham nuclear power station. It gave a voice to a group that isn’t often heard from and helped dispel stereotypes of the kinds of jobs women enjoy or “can” do.
But articles like this – and indeed most attempts to recruit more people into engineering – always receive criticism from people who think they send the wrong message.
One point made to me was that the young women featured were in “trade” not “technical” apprenticeships because they were learning to weld. This continued into a discussion of how bad it was for the profession’s image that all the photos used in the article were of women in hard hats.
This is a topic we’ve covered before on The Engineer, and it’s one that those looking to promote engineering (and those in the media covering it) should think about carefully.
The number of engineers who wear hard hats on a frequent basis is a tiny proportion of the total: in the last four years I’ve spent reporting on and visiting working engineers I’ve had to wear a hard hat on probably less than five occasions (though this is partly due to the kind of work The Engineer is most interested in).
And yet the majority of pictures of “engineers” you see in media reports tend to be clad with the offending safety gear. Certainly there were far too many on display during National Women in Engineering Day. It’s usually a lazy shorthand way for journalists to convey “engineering” without explaining what that actually means.
The argument goes that this sends the wrong message about what the engineering profession is really like, which in turn discourages young people who would much rather work in a high-tech office. I, for one, would love to see much broader and more representative coverage of engineering.
But that also doesn’t mean we should be afraid of promoting those areas of engineering that do involve hard hats: they form a substantial and important part of the profession.
A single article about on-site engineers at a nuclear power station isn’t enough to demonstrate to young people (including women) what an engineering career is about. But that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be published at all, especially when it’s focused on a group of people that many don’t even realise exist.
There’s also some dangerous thinking behind the argument that examples of hard-hat engineering will only put women off, because it plays into those stereotypes I mentioned.
The women in the BBC article have long hair and painted nails; one describes herself as ‘girly’ and another used to be hairdresser. At the same time the enthusiasm and excitement they have for their technical, physically demanding jobs is obvious. Having to wear a hard hat didn’t put them off.
And no, welding isn’t the same as engineering, but the main woman featured in the story began by learning the trade and is now a project engineer with a foundation degree.
Engineering is a broad church. We should promote all aspects of it and all routes into it. But let’s not patronise young people by assuming what they will and won’t like.