Wider horizons

In countries such as Latvia, women engineers have reaped the benefit of more progressive social attitudes.

A recent graduate of Riga Technical University (RTU) is struggling to understand The Engineer’s line of enquiry regarding gender equality and reasons why Latvia has more female engineers than Britain.

Although a small country with a population of approximately 2.3 million, women account for around 30 per cent of engineering professionals compared with seven per cent in Britain.

In a 2011 opinion piece for The Engineer, Newcastle MP Chi Onwurah pondered with a degree of sarcasm whether this could be attributed to ‘Latvian women being more left-brained.’

Engineering students will always be the winners

Prof Marika Rošā, Riga Technical University

For Janina Doviborova, M.Sc-Ing the answer is simple: ‘We do not look at things and say “that profession is for a women and that profession is for a man.”’

Doviborova, who graduated RTU this year with a masters degree in power and electrical engineering, and Prof Marika Rošā, a scientist in the Faculty of Power and Electrical Engineering (FPEE) at RTU believe Latvia’s relatively high proportion of female engineers can be attributed in part to the country’s annexation into the Soviet Union in 1940.

‘The Soviet era brought about control over the economy and universities,’ says Doviborova. ‘There were very few universities where you could study economics or law…there were always more possibilities to get into technical university. Maybe [because of] that time people are still keen to study engineering.’

With the exception of the two World Wars, Britain has not actively encouraged women into technical roles on the scale experienced in Latvia, where, according to Doviborova, it was normal for female factory workers to become managers and directors.

The ideological doctrine that accompanied Latvia’s 73 year relationship with the Soviet Union appears, however, to have permeated through generations of family with Rošā’ and Doviborova associating comfortably with science and engineering.

Doviborova has an older sister who is an HVAC engineer and her father is a doctor of chemistry whilst her mother is a geological engineer.

‘For me it was clear I’d do engineering as I’m a fourth generation engineer,’ she says. ‘In my childhood I saw my parents working with technical things, with drawings and explaining how this and that works and I knew that I wanted to do the same.’

Similarly, Rošā’s parents and older sister are engineers whilst her middle sister is a doctor.

‘I saw my parents were engineers so I thought “why not?”’ explains Rošā when describing the route into her career.

Family first

Family associations and women choosing an engineering career should not be underestimated. In September 2013 Atkins, a design, engineering and project management consultancy, led a report entitled ‘Britain’s got talented female engineers’.

Of the 300 female engineers surveyed, 39 per cent said a family member that is or was an engineer played a part in inspiring their interest in the profession.

Roma Agrawal, an associate structural engineer at engineering and design consultancy WSP agrees that family members can be helpful and her proactive parents (an electrical engineer and trained scientist) helped her develop spatial skills and understanding of chemistry.

However, she also believes that young women (and men) are let down by schools that fail to adequately define and describe the role of engineers.

‘In terms of people that do study [STEM] subjects, I think there’s a very clear lack of understanding in the UK of what the term engineer means,’ she says. ‘It’s a very vague and loose term, its used to describe the person that repairs our washing machine…and then the person that designs the Shard.

‘That for me is the biggest disconnect in the UK: defining what the term engineer means and communicating to children that actually, what we’re doing is changing people’s lives and that everything they use and touch that is man made exists because an engineer has designed it.

‘At WSP we did a survey of all the female engineers and nearly half said teachers and careers advisers were critical to them choosing to be engineers. Something that we can work on is to ensure that the industry and institutions are speaking to teachers and careers advisers to explain to them what they do. Once they understand that they can…convey that to their students who show promise in the STEM subjects.’

Hands on

Doviborova says she was not offered careers advice lessons school but added that universities offer ‘Open Door’ days, where school children are invited to visit and ask questions.

‘Pupils can choose which universities they want to visit and they can speak with researchers, professors and other students,’ she says.

According to Helen Wollaston, director of WISE (Women in Science and Engineering), more direct, ‘hands-on’ experiences are offered in Germany where a number of schemes exist to engage girls (and boys) with the possibilities offered by a career in engineering.

One of these, ‘Girls Day’ takes place each April and asks engineering companies, universities and research centres to arrange an open day for girls aged 10 years and upwards. The annual event is considered the largest careers orientation project for female students and this year over 9,200 institutions offered more than 108,000 places for female students.

According to Wollaston, the Kompetenzz organisation also offers a six month ‘taster programme’ for young women who are at the equivalent of A level.

‘It’s a taster in that they’d have a work placement in a science, technology or engineering company but with a day a week at university so its linked to ongoing training,’ says Wollaston.

She added that 63 per cent of young women on the programme go onto work in the industries that offer a placement.

‘It seems to suggest that one of the things that works is giving young women more opportunities to try things out, because it is quite daunting to go into an industry where you’re likely to be in the minority,’ says Wollaston. ‘So giving a slightly longer opportunity to try it out would be more effective, and that’s one of the things that we would like to talk to companies about doing in the UK.’

Agrawal and Wollaston add that positive role models are vital, an issue Doviborova doesn’t think is relevant in Latvia due to an abundance of ‘strong women with strong leadership skills.’

Convergence consensus

Experiences in Latvia and Britain converge, however, when it comes to industries competing for talent, equal pay and career progression.

‘The most prestige – where there is most competition – is in law and economics….of course they require a lot of knowledge to study but they are not as difficult as maths, physics, or chemistry,’ says Rošā.

Wollaston adds that STEM qualifications are very portable as the training and discipline required to attain them can be used in a range of sectors.

Agrawal, a graduate of Oxford University, notes that every stall at a milk round careers fair was occupied by a bank, management consultancy or law firm.

‘I thought to myself “Are these my only career options? I studied physics, surely there are more things I can do with it?”’

‘Something we talk about to engineering companies that join WISE is: can we do something to facilitate a coordinated effort to make women on STEM degree courses more aware of the opportunities in engineering?’ adds Wollaston.

Despite this level of competition, Rošā is adamant that young women should remain on course to follow an engineering career.

‘The study is difficult but [engineering students] will always be the winners at the end,’ say Rošā. ‘They will be in a much better situation than their classmates who are choosing the easier way, following the social sciences.’