Lack of fellow women baffles top British engineer Dame Ann Dowling

Concorde engineer says her profession is perfect for girls

Helping to design a “single-wing” airliner and developing some of the lowest-emission jet engines, Dame Ann Dowling’s impressive career has already seen her recognised for her services to science with a DBE.

As head of the Department of Engineering at Cambridge University, she is one of Britain’s most eminent engineers. Yet while Professor Dowling might know all there is to know about aviation, combustion and acoustics, she is “baffled” by why so few women follow the engineering path. Later this year the professor is set to make history as the first female president of the Royal Academy of Engineering.

She doesn’t need her skills as a mathematician and mechanical engineer to see that most of the academy’s 1,500 fellows are men; fewer than five per cent are women.

This reflects the national situation; fewer than 8 per cent of engineers in Britain, and only 17 per cent of engineering students, are women.

“The figures are stark, terrible in fact,” Professor Dowling said. “I think sometimes there is a perception that you have to get your hands dirty .... Whereas, really, the tool engineers use most is their brain.”

Last week, Professor Dowling, who worked on Concorde, was quoted telling parents to buy Lego for their daughters, to encourage them to mend bikes and not to be afraid of getting mucky. It is good advice, she said, but was more of a “flippant aside that got built into a headline” than a policy recommendation for the Government.

Now she focuses on education and outreach. For example, she is full of praise for the Government working with the RAE on its Engineering for Growth campaign.

But she is critical of the role the education sector plays. “At GCSE level there are just as many girls as boys studying physics, which is central to any career in engineering,” she said. The “problem” is, “girls are not choosing to continue with physics” at A-level.

This is backed up by a recent Institute of Physics study which showed that half of A-Level physics classes in UK state schools were made up entirely of boys.

Professor Dowling doesn’t think engineers “do enough” to communicate how “people-centric” a job in engineering can be. “When big projects go wrong, more often than not it’s  ...because the team on the job didn’t talk to one another.” 

The study also showed that in single-sex schools, more girls go on to study physics to A-level. The professor put this down to “peer pressure”.

The solution, she says, is an education system, such as the baccalaureate, that doesn’t allow 16-year-olds to ditch maths and science. “Sadly this appears to be a UK-specific problem ... in Sweden, for example, 25 per cent of professional engineers are women, while in France, Italy and Norway that figure is 20 per cent.”

It’s not just women, though; a report last year from the Social Market Foundation highlighted an annual shortage of up to 40,000 graduates of either gender in science, engineering and maths.

“There is no hiding it,” Professor Dowling said. “Industry is crying out for more people.”

Life in brief: Dame Ann Dowling

  • Born: 1952
  • Education: University of Cambridge
  • Career: First female professor at Cambridge’s engineering department in 1998. Now head of Department. Fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering and the Royal Society
  • Research: Combustion, acoustics and vibration
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Sport
Super BowlAfter Katy Perry madness it's back to The Independent's live coverage of Super Bowl 49!
News
See what Twitter had to say about the first half of the Super Bowl
News
people
News
people
PROMOTED VIDEO
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Tradewind Recruitment: PMLD Teacher

Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: PMLD Teacher A specialist primary school i...

Recruitment Genius: Online Media Sales Trainee

£15000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Now our rapidly expanding and A...

Recruitment Genius: Public House Manager / Management Couples

£15000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you passionate about great ...

Recruitment Genius: Production Planner

£20000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast growing reinforcing s...

Day In a Page

The super-rich now live in their own Elysium - they breathe better air, and eat better food, when they're not making beans on toast for their kids

The super-rich now live in their own Elysium

They breathe better air, eat better food, take better medicine
A generation of dropouts failed by colleges

Dropout generation failed by colleges

£800m a year wasted on students who quit courses before they graduate
Entering civilian life 'can be like going into the jungle' for returning soldiers

Homeless Veterans appeal

Entering civilian life can be like going into the jungle
Sam Taylor-Johnson: Woman on top

Sam Taylor-Johnson: Woman on top

Fifty Shades of Grey director on bringing the hit to the screen
Shazam! Story of the $1bn 'what's that song?' app

Shazam: Story of the $1bn 'what's that song?' app

As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

Mussolini tried to warn his ally of the danger of bringing the country to its knees. So should we, says Patrick Cockburn
Britain's widening poverty gap should be causing outrage at the start of the election campaign

The short stroll that should be our walk of shame

Courting the global elite has failed to benefit Britain, as the vast disparity in wealth on display in the capital shows
Homeless Veterans appeal: The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty

Homeless Veterans appeal

The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty
Prince Charles the saviour of the nation? A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king

Prince Charles the saviour of the nation?

A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king
How books can defeat Isis: Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad

How books can defeat Isis

Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad
Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

She may be in charge of minimising our risks of injury, but the chair of the Health and Safety Executive still wants children to be able to hurt themselves
The open loathing between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu just got worse

The open loathing between Obama and Netanyahu just got worse

The Israeli PM's relationship with the Obama has always been chilly, but going over the President's head on Iran will do him no favours, says Rupert Cornwell
French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

Fury at British best restaurants survey sees French magazine produce a rival list
Star choreographer Matthew Bourne gives young carers a chance to perform at Sadler's Wells

Young carers to make dance debut

What happened when superstar choreographer Matthew Bourne encouraged 27 teenage carers to think about themselves for once?
Design Council's 70th anniversary: Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch

Design Council's 70th anniversary

Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch