It was one of our final evenings here last night and the sun just dipped below the horizon. The whole sky was bright red for about 15 mins so went for a walk out round the base perimeter with my camera...." So begins the on-line diary of 25-year-old Gemma Clarke, written from the frosty regions of the Antarctic. But Clarke is not on holiday, she's a structural engineer working on the design of the British Antarctic Survey Base, a project known as Halley VI.
Designing something in the Antarctic involves a unique set of criteria, says Clarke. For example, snow accumulation of over a metre each year means having to devise a jacking system to raise the existing base, Halley V. Buildings have to be tightly sealed too, otherwise spindrift (tiny particles of snow) will get into any gap. "There's plenty of back-up," writes Clarke in her diary, "but the trick is to bring it together and apply the knowledge to practical problems."
And that is a good enough definition of engineering as any. This is a field where professionals are sought after and where problem solving is key, yet Clarke is unusual for the simple reason that she's a woman. Dawn Fitt, president of the Women's Engineering Society, says our need for engineers has never been greater and as technology changes, so too does the job of the engineer. But supply has not kept up with demand. Only one in 12 engineers in the UK is a woman, according to the Equal Opportunities Commission, as are only 2.8 per cent of engineers registered with the Engineering Council.
Some say women are not interested in engineering (too dirty and smelly), others that they are not encouraged at school and therefore it's not a career they aspire to. However, Clarke knew from the age of 17 that what interested her was how to make a building stand up. She did a BEng at Bath University, where there were two women and 20 men on the course. She thinks girls still don't consider engineering as a career.
Faber Maunsell, the engineering consultancy for whom Clarke works, says it's been trying hard to promote the young female graduates coming through its ranks in an industry that is still seen as being a traditional "boys club". Clarke is now working towards becoming a chartered civil engineer, and she has also done presentations at local schools where she tells students about the new space-age base she's working on. The reaction is usually, "Wow!"
One of Clarke's colleagues is Kate Baker, a 24-year-old bridges engineer. While she had never been interested in engineering at school, her elder sister was doing civil engineering at university and "she talked me into it". But when Baker went to her schools careers adviser, the reply was, "I'm really sorry but I don't know what civil engineering is." Despite this, Baker did a degree in civil and structural engineering at Manchester University, although she had a wobble in the first year, fearing it wasn't the right subject for her. But then she did a work placement at Faber Maunsell and today she runs her own project looking after motorway gantries around Birmingham.
"People say, ooh, engineering is all men, but on my team there are five women, which is apparently quite a rarity," says Baker. "I'm aware it's a male-dominated field because people talk about it, but I don't feel like a minority." She says the best thing about the job is the fact you get to share ideas and that people are interested in hearing them, but that mentors are crucial in terms of getting more women to the top.
The final word must go to Clarke because if you thought engineering wasn't thrilling then here's another excerpt from her diary: "I got the chance to spend a night camping out in one of the pyramid tents... I was very glad of the heat from the paraffin lamp though, as it was about minus 25C that evening! Tomorrow we should get the chance to go down towards the coast and have a go at abseiling down into a crevasse... very excited!"
How to get into engineering
Many engineers enter the profession through a university degree; for which you usually need A-levels (or the equivalent) in English, maths, sciences, design and technology, and at least five GCSEs (grades A* to C, including maths and sciences). For more information, visit the following websites: www.scenta.co.uk/careers, www.connexions-direct.com/jobs4u, www.engc.org.uk, www.prospects.ac.uk, www.wes.org.ukReuse content