Inaccurate and negative perceptions are putting girls off a career in engineering

Girls have a misunderstanding of what it is like to be a female engineer, writes Brompton engineer Ele Sherwen.

I’m a Mechanical Design Engineer for Brompton Bicycle Limited, making folding bicycles for commuters. This job is also a passion: I’m a keen cyclist like many of the designers here.

My journey into bicycle engineering was undramatic and pleasant, largely unaffected by being in a female minority. I’ve benefited hugely from the gender barriers women before me have knocked down. I certainly hope I am part of a growing wave of female engineers and that we’re on the path to gender balance evening out in time.

girls

Brompton has a keen outreach policy, which gives me the rewarding chance to share my love of engineering with students. For a lot of kids it’s a fun informative day out, but nothing earth-shaking. Then again, sometimes it sets off a curiosity in someone, which just might lead to their future path. Those moments are precious.

I hoped to support the girls considering engineering; being able to see “someone like me” is crucial for all minorities in STEM. But puzzlingly, the problem is the other way round; amongst our usual visitors in Years 10 to 13, I don’t meet my younger self much. The girls have mostly dropped STEM subjects, and those remaining tend to be quiet and passive. There’s little sign of the passion and curiosity which drives a good engineer. Whilst I was also shy at that age, I was physically incapable of keeping a question to myself!

Don’t fear being a woman amongst men. You’ll be welcomed as an engineer amongst engineers

There’s the occasional affirming exception; a young woman I spoke to a year ago has just got in touch about her latest project. But these depressingly homogenous classes make us female engineers at Brompton look like outliers. My younger self is facing her fork in the road to engineering at a much younger age.

girls

When I was selected for “I’m An Engineer Get Me Out Of Here”, I was delighted at the wider age range and different context. It’s endearingly chaotic; an online “Ask Me Anything” chat session, where engineers are pitted against a hoard of children testing you on the workings of derailleurs, overall life satisfaction, and your knowledge of Pokemon Go.

There’s a dramatically different dynamic with the students; suddenly everyone can access the activity and all voices have the same volume. At last, I heard meaningful questions from the girls, and they were shocking. They wanted to know how I deal with daily sexist comments, how I work around being ignored, or whether being bullied makes me upset.

I was quick to myth-bust this hostile image. That’s not my experience. My colleagues are kind and respectful people who’d be horrified by behaviour like this. If I ever encountered such behaviour, I’d report it and be supported by my employer.

It’s a relief to set the record straight, but most girls don’t get this platform to air their fears and I wonder where they originate. When we say “We need female engineers!” are girls sensing desperation? Do they conclude we must be mistreating women to still have such a gender imbalance?

There’s still much to do before people who love engineering get to discover it and pursue it regardless of gender or background, and so many excellent engineers to gain

Gender stereotyping can be subtle too. During a chat, a girl asked about getting the Brompton job. Saying yes meant travelling from York to London each week, away from my now husband. How had we handled that in our relationship? We’re both passionate in our careers and we respect that in each other. We discussed it at length and realised this was hugely important to me so we both agreed I should go for it.

After the session the teacher, Fiona, contacted me:

 “[this question] opened a great conversation here about why they thought they needed to ask that of you but not ask similar of [the male engineer in the same session]. It really opened my eyes to their perceptions of their role in a relationship/modern society… fortunately I still have time to challenge their ideas”

These girls are working off a different checklist for success. They feel expected to prioritise their relationships as much as work. This is an approach with great merit since we are all whole humans. But it’s disappointing that it’s a gendered norm. Men need balance, men have relationships as valuable as their careers. To discriminate one way hurts us all.

How can we help girls override gendered messages? I don’t have any expert tips, but I can relate what was important for me. Maths was normalised in my house, treated by my parents as a desirable skill. My D&T teachers saw a spark and encouraged it. I didn’t get to meet a female (or indeed any) engineer, but I saw B’Elanna Torres and Samantha Carter on TV saving the day. Design workshop represented a creative space where I could be myself, and continuing in it was a natural choice, not a lightbulb moment or a feminist rebellion. My teenage idealist wanted to do something practical to improve the world; now I reach tens of thousands of lives and have a positive impact on the environment.

girls

There’s still much to do before people who love engineering get to discover it and pursue it regardless of gender or background, and so many excellent engineers to gain. Although subtle challenges remain – being assertive without being “bossy”, suppliers assuming you’re not the project leader, feeling pressure to be perfect to “earn” your place – and I’ve encountered them, it’s counterbalanced by knowing my colleagues, male and female, want this to be a diverse industry.

Since “I’m an Engineer” Brompton has hired two more design engineers on my team, and now my team is majority female. But the fact is the balance never phased me. That’s what I want these girls to know; don’t fear being a woman amongst men. You’ll be welcomed as an engineer amongst engineers.

Ele Sherwen came second in the Metre Zone of I’m an Engineer, Get me out of here in March 2016.  I’m an Engineer is an online STEM engagement project that connects school students and engineers. Free to UK and Ireland schools the non-profit activity is funded by the Royal Academy of Engineering and Wellcome Trust for the 2017/18 school year.