Women in engineering: The range of jobs is more diverse than many think

Positive messages about women in engineering aim to swell the ranks

Kate Hilpern
Monday 23 June 2014 16:08 BST

Engineering touches almost everything we do and use. From turning on the light switch to driving a car, engineers have made it possible. The problem is that the diversity of careers that an engineering qualification can therefore open up isn’t something that’s getting through to enough girls. Indeed, figures show that female employees make up just 13 per cent of Stem (science, technology, engineering and maths) jobs – a particularly concerning number when you consider that engineering needs 87,000 new graduates every year.

“Until I started working, I had no idea of the range of jobs that I could do, from the very technical hands-on roles to more commercial roles that required a technical background to understand the products,” says Trina Watt, vice president of solutions marketing at ARM. “This is just in the networking and semiconductor industry and once you multiply this up to the different engineering faculties, then the range is mind-blowing.”

Helen Wollaston is director of WISE, whose mission it is to push the presence of female employees in engineering up to 30 per cent by 2020. “I think the main problem is that girls often have a limited view of engineering,” she says. “The fact that it’s both a trade and a profession, with opportunities at many levels and across many industries, is a real challenge to get across. Also, the current shortage of women in engineering means there aren’t enough female role models for them to aspire to.”

A further issue is the lack of understanding about creative opportunities, she adds. “Art and design is a key part of engineering, so someone who likes those subjects and can keep up with maths could have a great career combining both. Too few youngsters realise this.”

Another problem is that parents and schools don’t always do their bit to encourage more girls into engineering, explains Wollaston. “Research shows that at least 70 per cent of influence on what young people wind up doing comes from parents. We also need more schools to encourage more girls to study physics and maths.”

Employers also have a part to play, of course, and it’s here that the most exciting changes are taking place, says Wollaston. “For some time, there have been some fantastic initiatives by different companies, ranging from sponsoring competitions talks in schools, but until now they’ve been quite fragmented. What’s changed in the last few months is the will to collaborate, and as a result of several meetings with companies and Government since Christmas, we are looking at new ways to join things up.”

Wollaston anticipates three key consequences. “We will be able to get positive messages across about engineering on a far bigger scale than before through a wider network of accessible role models,” she says. “This means girls and their parents will get to meet young women working in the profession who can showcase the variety of roles, opportunities to travel, capability to earn good money and the ability to change people’s lives. This last point often resonates particularly with girls, with one woman in industry recently doing a particularly successful talk on how she’d been out to Afghanistan to develop a donkey ambulance.”

Secondly, Wollaston envisages a far wider network of mentors from industry. “Evidence shows that most girls who go into engineering have a scientist or engineer in their family circle who gave them support,” she says. “For those who don’t, it can be daunting to consider something none of your family or friends have done. We want to provide anyone who thinks they might be interested in engineering with an alternative person to be on their side and give support and advice.”

Thirdly, Wollaston says companies are joining forces to reconsider conditions in the workplace to make women feel more welcome. “In some companies, it might involve introducing more family-friendly hours while in another, it might be addressing more subtle things such as workplace banter. In fact, getting women to stay is just as significant as attracting them in the first place because the knock-on effect will be girls seeing people like themselves working at all levels.”

Jenny Young, diversity manager at the Royal Academy of Engineering, agrees that a more inclusive working culture is an essential goal. “Engineering has traditionally been dominated by white, British males, and that is still the case in the main. So it’s vital that companies work to provide a working culture that is both welcoming and rewarding for every kind of person and somewhere that they want to stay and grow.”

Young is as excited as Wollaston about the increase in collaborative action. “The fact that sector skills councils, professional engineering institutions and companies themselves are increasingly coming together is exciting, and I really believe it will change things,” she says.

It’s not just girls who need to be targeted, however, points out Nicky Danino, senior lecturer at the School of Computing, Engineering and Physical Sciences at the University of Central Lancashire. “We should target boys just as much, so that they grow up with the mindset that their sisters, girlfriends and mothers are all just as capable as being engineers as they are. And we should target them as young as we can.”

Jacqui Hanbury, product manager at Festo Ltd, believes one of the key tasks for companies is to dispel the myths around engineering, not least that it is all about railways, boots and overalls. “For every product we sell that goes into a dirty environment, we sell five that go into a clean environment, such as a food factory or medical facility,” she explains.

“Another myth is that engineering only needs academics who get high grades in all the science subjects and want to spend a long time at university before going into a research and development role,” Hanbury says. “This often puts off the less academic girls who cannot see themselves achieving this path.”

Justine Buckley, engineering manager at e2v, is a case in point. “It’s fair to say that I was not a star pupil and struggled at times to concentrate in my design and technology lesson,” she admits. “But an inspiring teacher quickly learned how to gain my interest in the coursework project – which was to design and build an alarm system – and from school I signed up for a CAD drawing course at college, where another inspiring teacher persuaded me to join an engineering course.”

Upon joining e2v’s apprenticeship programme, Buckley was the only female to apply that year, but 10 years on she raves about her “fantastic and adventurous career”. “I’ve achieved much more than I believed possible,” she says.

Among the things that companies have already made good headway with is liaising with teachers. Hanbury explains. “When we do a Stem-based event, it’s great to see a teacher come along who has no idea what engineering can be, but who goes away understanding it and excited about promoting it,” she says. “One design and technology teacher last week said to me that if she had understood the possibilities when she was at school, she would have studied engineering instead of teaching. She can influence far more girls than we can.”

Companies have also found success in reconsidering the way they promote themselves. “At Cisco, we’ve achieved a 50-50 gender split in our apprenticeship scheme simply by changing the language we use in advertisements and job descriptions,” says Ian Foddering, CTO at Cisco UK & Ireland. “Considering the general industry slant is closer to 80-20, that’s significant. Instead of terms like systems engineering, products and services, we favour words like technology, solving problems and people. It sounds simple because it is, but the results speak for themselves.”

The National Grid is among a growing number of employers who run work experience weeks, in which half are guaranteed to be girls. Meanwhile, Hays Engineering is among those who are helping bring engineering alive with actual projects. “Earlier this year, we helped 50 11-14 year-olds in Telford build a 12-metre-long bridge, and on National Women’s Engineering Day, we’ll be at a school in Southport constructing a giant tetrahedron with girls from years 9 and 10,” explains Greg Lettington, director.

“Lack of understanding about what an engineer does is a problem, so providing more examples of how it shapes the world we live in is a great thing for companies to do,” says Denise Giddy, machinery manager at Air Products Plc.

“Engineering may not be seen as a glamorous career, but I speak from experience when I say it’s exciting, varied and constantly motivating. Let’s do all we can to get this message across to girls.”

Case study: ‘I’ve always been curious about the world’

Marielle Langerak is head of research and development at Philips.

“Our team’s mission is to improve people’s lives through meaningful innovation and make the world a healthier and more sustainable place.

I have always been curious about the world around me. At the age of one, I found a button in our car. It was the start motor and made the car bump ahead for a few metres, so my dad had to run for it. At another occasion a few years later, I used a pair of scissors to bypass the child security cap on the wall socket for electricity. I will never forget that moment – it helped me later on when I came to learn about conductivity.

One standout moment of my career was when I went on a business trip to China to see an MRI system. We arrived, and on our way through the hospital, I stumbled on the cardiovascular system that I had been working on 10 years before.

It was a proud moment seeing it in use, especially watching people interact with the system in the way we had designed.

I am surrounded by great examples of how technology can help people in their everyday lives, and I feel lucky to be part of that engineering process of creating future innovations that really matter to people. This includes technology that helps the elderly stay longer in their own homes by using advanced fall detection, or by using technology that helps them communicate with the hospital on their medical treatment, without having to leave the comfort of their own home.”

Case study: ‘Solving problems on a daily basis is motivating’

Jane Richards is director in the building structures business of WSP.

“I head up a team that leads on the structural engineering work on projects varying from high-rise towers to stadia to small refurbishments work. Some weeks, I’m working on a residential project; other weeks, I work on commercial buildings.

Either way, it involves a lot of liaising with architects and other engineering professionals who are all part of seeing the project through to completion.

The variety is amazing and if you like applying physics and maths to something real, as well as working with exceptionally creative people, it is fantastic. Probably the best thing of all is seeing a tangible result, and because we specialise – although not exclusively – on skinny skyscrapers, those results can be outstanding.

Some of the work is really challenging technically, but solving problems on a daily basis is a real motivator for me.

I think one of the main reasons there’s a shortage of women in engineering is that it’s so diverse. Many areas of engineering wouldn’t suit me at all, but others feel like they’re made for me. If girls find out about areas that don’t appeal to them, you’ve often lost them right there.

Personally, I was lucky to have a lot of encouragement at school to find a career I’d enjoy. I got to spend a day watching engineers in practice where one particular female engineer – who I later saw lecture on her job – became a role model of sorts. I haven’t looked back.”

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