Claire Greenhouse takes a look at the increasing roles for women in engineering. Until relatively recently, the number of women taking roles and making careers in engineering were relatively few and far between.
Until then, engineering was seen as a male reserve, and in that respect, a female engineer would have been considered something of an oddity, even perhaps an oddball. In these enlightened times of course, more engineers than ever are female. Claire looks at how things have progressed since the turn of the millenium in engineering.
As the ICE begins its ‘Year of Engineering’ events, the website (https://www.ice.org.uk/ice-200) encouragingly shows a picture of a girl around the age of 8 or 9 looking at an exhibition of the invisible super heroes in engineering. This is a powerful subconscious message that it is a viable interest and career for young women to consider. However, historically, most of the showcased projects in the ICE 200 were built by men. Is history dictating the willingness of women to enter the field of engineering, or is it other factors?
The issues and the evidence
The best way to approach these questions is by looking at the evidence, although the complete picture will never really be covered completely as there will be pockets of aspiring female engineers, who are playing with their construction sets and spending hours on a Sunday afternoon in their family shed forming ideas and bringing them into life before a rewarding future career in engineering. But what do the figures show?
1) In 2016, women made up just 8% of engineers in the UK. (ONS,2016 report)
2) In 2017, Only 1 in 8 engineering employees were women (a slight increase on 2016). (Source: Engineering UK Report 2017).
3) In 2016, it was reported by Vince Cable in an article published in The Guardian, that the UK has the lowest percentage of female engineering professionals in Europe, whilst the highest were Latvia, Bulgaria and Cyprus.
4) Female students on engineering courses in the UK were 15.8% in 2015 compared to over 30% in India (Source: the Women’s Engineering Society – IET Report).
So, what is causing the gender gap? I interviewed a female engineer and researched the attitudes of female engineers working in the field online and it seems that the problems lie in the areas of societal norms, stereotyping, exposure to engineering at school / young ages including career guidance and information available, the perceived difficulties of the subject and the possibility of re-entry into the profession after a career break to have children (although many careers have this issue). Gender stereotyping is also considered a factor during early schooling and upbringing. These are all psychologically based elements.
The following interview questions and responses paint an interesting day to day picture of acceptance and encouragement, although how representative this picture is can depend on the employer and the particular field. The engineer interviewed currently runs a Space Engineering business with her husband.
Interviewer: What was your job title?
Engineer: My job titles were Graduate Engineer and Airbag Development Engineer.
Interviewer: What made you go into your field?
Engineer: I enjoyed the sciences, maths and physics when I was at school. One of my teachers in the subject of physics and sciences was an inspiring teacher who took the time to ensure we understood the subject as well as making it interesting and part of our daily lives.
Interviewer: When were you aware that engineering was a viable career for a woman?
Engineer: I chose to study engineering in further education because I enjoyed the subjects. This took me into an engineering employment. It never occurred to me that it might not be a viable career because I was a woman.
Interviewer: What did your peers and family think about your career choice?
Engineer: My family were very supportive and proud that I chose that career path. I was the first family member to achieve an Honours Degree in Engineering. Some of my peers felt that I was brave to study engineering because I was the only woman on the course.
Interviewer: Did you feel your colleagues treated you differently because you were female?
Engineer: I was not treated any differently, if anything they were unsure how to treat me. It was an unusual situation for them as most female staff were in administrative, clerical or Human Resources roles. It seemed that the older generation were less familiar with young female engineers. When I moved onto my next job where the technical teams were younger I was treated as one of the team.
Interviewer: Do you have any opinions on why there are not more women in your field of expertise?
Engineer: Engineering is historically seen as male dominated career and as such younger girls are not always actively encouraged in society as a whole to pursue a career in engineering from an early age. I can see through my career that this is changing as more women go into engineering with the older generation now in senior roles.
Some other viewpoints from employed female engineers include points concerning:
1) Engineering is often seen as a subject that is just physics and maths based rather than something more holistic, says AnnMarie Nicholson, Design Engineer at Dyson.
2) There are concerns that time out to have children will harm careers (although many occupations have this issue).
3) Many women raised the issues that they did not even know what engineering was or what it involved until they came to choose their university courses – there is maybe an argument for an additional science subject offered at GCSE level as well as greater transparency of the field overall?
4) The stereotyping of women in STEM subjects and the image of female engineers (Source: the Women’s Engineering Society).
As reported in the BBC Business News, according to Biomedical Engineer Lina Nilsson, there could be another issue – that the field is not considered to have a ‘social-good element’. Some universities and colleges in the UK are running courses in ‘Humanitarian Engineering’, involving clean drinking water solutions and ways of preventing tropical diseases among other challenges, through engineering. When Nilsson ran a course on using engineering to finding solutions for low-income communities and the way they live, at the University of California in the Autumn of 2014, half of the students were women. Could part of the answer lie in the education on offer and the way the field is portrayed perhaps?
James Dyson regularly talks about the skills shortage in engineering in the UK, and aims to address the shortages via his Dyson Foundation, whilst encouraging young female engineers – the homepage of the website is testament to this.
Chemical engineering companies have started to directly advertise their fields to young girls, showing the scope of a fulfilling and rewarding career and the number of government schemes in place to encourage more women into a career in the STEM field are numerous. 84% of women in a WES survey of 300 stated that they were happy/very happy with their career in engineering, and tapping further into the pool of possible female engineers will help to both provide those women with fulfilling careers whilst bridging a skills gap in the UK.
Tangentially but relevant, multi-award winner Shonda Rhimes (writer of Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal) explained in her book ‘Year of Yes’, when she received an award for ‘breaking the glass ceiling’ for African American women, that the glass ceiling was easy to break and shatter, but it was not her but many black African American women before her had added fractures and weaknesses to that glass ceiling and it just took that last little nudge to crack it all the way through.
Could it be that maybe the same thing is occurring in engineering and the number of women going into the profession? Is the ceiling being fractured even though it has not broken yet? Are those few women in engineering causing a wider path to be laid for later generations – raising the number of women in the field? One day will a female engineer finally give that last push on the glass ceiling and cause it to splinter into many pieces – bring engineering into the wider consciousness of young women? The optimist in me likes to think that there is a shift, albeit small and slow, towards a greater gender equality of numbers.