Missed opportunities to put engineering in the spotlight

From controversy over Formula 1’s “grid girls” to the successful launch of Elon Musk’s Falcon Heavy recent events have represented missed opportunities to put engineering in the spotlight writes our anonymous blogger.

missed opportunities
The role of engineers played second fiddle to a focus on Elon Musk in coverage of the Falcon Heavy launch

We have just had a few weeks of momentous happenings which in turn led to people getting into a terrible tizz on the interweb (both in a good and a bad way).

Of course we all know that engineers influence virtually every aspect of life, but I was left wondering why the engineering related aspects of the various stories weren’t more to the fore?

Taking them one at a time, firstly there was the great outcry at the removal of “grid girls” from Formula 1. I must admit I was rather taken aback by the sheer volume of opinions given about this as well as the depth of feeling shown. Also the wildly inaccurate and downright bizarre arguments made regarding the decision and its basis.

One popular argument in particular was that young girls who talked to the “grid girls” would be encouraged into the motorsport industry, going on to be drivers, engineers and mechanics. This struck me as being a tad disingenuous but at least worthy of consideration.

Rather than merely accepting or denying this point though, where were the female engineers who could comment directly? Here was the opportunity to show why things should be kept as they were or, on the other hand, that the current situation merely reinforces “boys build and drive cars, girls hold signs and look pretty”.  My feeling is that all the time there is a perceived division its not going to help get women into engineering. By removing the grid girls you break the imbalance on the side you can and help move things to a better state.

Hot on the heels of this came the centenary of women’s emancipation, admittedly true equality in voting was to come much later but this was the “landmark moment”. As one would expect, the discourse spread out to further conversations regarding equality now and how the roles and expectations of women in society have changed. I admittedly noted that one person had contacted a programme (who had asked their viewers to nominate their heroines) about Beatrice Shilling but apart from that engineers seemed sadly underrepresented in the debate. If one wants to look to the liberation of women from “traditional” expectations within the modern world then surely the historically conspicuously “male realm” of engineering is the place to go?

Finally there was the first successful launch of the SpaceX Falcon Heavy which shot Elon Musk’s roadster towards Mars, and unfortunately missed. Mr Musk is a natural showman so the amount of coverage, and comment, regarding his new rocket is unsurprising.

A lot of friends on social media provided links to the live feed of the launch and have subsequently gushed about how wonderful it all was ever since. In particular the synchronised soft landings of the two boosters really captured the imagination with many references to Thunderbirds being given.

We barely make the fringe of debates and stories where we should be claiming the centre ground

However, while there was much excitement and admiration I didn’t see anyone comment about the engineers and scientists behind it. Not even the slightest discussion was to be found of any of the technology that has had to be developed. It seemed to be the usual case once more of “this is an amazing thing that has happened just because some rich fellow thought it would be cool” – rather than, say, “a lot of very clever people behind this committed to the dream and made it happen”.

Within a week or two then we had a perfect series of chances to get our colleagues out in front of the cameras or across the interweb. The chance to explode myths and encourage young women into our profession. The chance to engage both young and old minds in the beauty and wonder of our world. Yet still we are denied exposure, or perhaps rather we fail to rise to the challenge? We barely make the fringe of debates and stories where we should be claiming the centre ground.  There may be follow up programmes where we do get our due moment in the Sun but not when its current news and vital – and that is when its most important.