It is alarming to discover that such a gap exists and even though 56% of undergraduate students in the UK are female, they are still massively underrepresented in certain areas of the discipline. Statistics also show that despite efforts to rectify this the gender gap continues to widen and has nearly doubled in the last eight years.
It seems timely, given that it is 100 years since women’s suffrage to talk about trail blazing females. Like most people I can talk about the achievements of Alexander Graham Bell and Nikola Tesla but know nothing at all about Hedy Lamarr, Lillian Gilbreth or Stephanie Louise Kwolek – which is shocking considering the sector I recruit into and the fact that one of the products invented kept me safe day in and day out during a previous career.
Over recent months I have been speaking to my network in order to get a first-hand experience of women forging their career in such a male dominated industry, to promote the range of careers available within this sector and to identify areas where increased support is necessary to address this. Covering the amazing achievements of women in engineering and discussing the key ‘touch points’ where education, academia and industry can make a difference to readjust the balance.
It is not surprising that the disciplines where women are less likely to be found are those that we have been predisposed to view as ‘dirty and unfeminine’ – namely industrial, electrical and mechanical. Evidence gathered by Girls In Tech between 2012 and 2013 showed representations of 17.1%, 10.7% and 7.9% respectively. Although still underrepresented, more women are attracted to what we would call the ‘social sciences’ such as environmental engineering. This was one bug bear that one female engineer I spoke to echoed. She said that the biggest misconception of non-engineering females at her undergraduate University was that her topic involved automotive and heavy machinery. In reality she was (and still is) more likely to be found at a computer solving design problems that up to her elbows in grease. She went on to say that throughout her career she has lost count of the number of times people have joked about her being able to fix their cars because she is an Engineer and that the discipline and the range of careers within is simply not understood. What was also very interesting was to hear of similar disparities from a female Human Factors Engineer that received her childhood education in India. She told me that in India great onus is placed on obtaining careers either within Engineering or Medicine. She told me that this begin early with support from parents and schools due to the longevity and stability of roles in these fields. However, even with this almost seemingly, national focus on two sectors, there were twice as many males as females in her undergraduate intake. When the various disciplines were broken down the same pattern emerged, women were better represented in computer engineering than mechanical engineering. She believed that the women were more attracted to sub disciplines such as Environmental Engineering and Chemical sciences and even her own sector of Human Factors due to the empathy required.
Statistics from the US offer the same feeling of Deja Vu, with only approximately 18% of engineering degrees being awarded to women.
So, perhaps obviously, my next question to my network was why did THEY choose engineering and where did their inspiration come from? It seems that across the board, they were lucky enough to have good teachers and careers advisers that when presented with a student displaying strong analytical and problem solving skills, coupled an obvious love of the sciences, suggested and encouraged engineering as a career path. With this in mind, it is really good to hear about current initiatives, being implemented globally to promote engineering careers. Girl Power is a national grant which is awarded to schools in order to boost resources within elementary robotics, including robot, controller and accessories. The only proviso to being eligible for this award is that the school must have at least one all-girls robotics team taking part. It is great to see such an initiative that benefits all pupils at the school but also serves to open up young girl’s eyes to other options for their future study and careers. MIT also runs an initiative for female high school students to learn about other options during their summer breaks. The Women’s Technology Program in Electrical Engineering and Computer Sciences allows the students to work alongside female MIT students and gives them a first-hand opportunity to learn about the projects they are involved in and what studying within these disciplines is like.
Alarmingly, many of the women I spoke to told me that for the few who do make it into the profession – retention is quite low. Of those I spoke to many addressed the work/life balance after child birth to be problematic with one reporting a necessity to return to full time work after having a child, in 6 weeks whilst others report on site childcare, something I instantly assumed would be a positive, but the costs involved were much higher than childcare off site. One female said that due to working in a male dominated team, she would really have benefitted from a female mentor or advocate that would be more appreciative of the necessary work life balance once you have a family. Ultimately for many this is not sustainable, and they leave the profession altogether or move into academia which is seen to be more supportive of mothers. Another told me that she has been asked when she is going to settle down and have a family by her line managers and that she has witnessed other women being discriminated against, in terms of what projects they have been put forward for, based on the assumed probability of at what stage they might go off to have a family.
Going back to the three women I mentioned at the start of the article; Hedy Lamarr, Lillian Gilbreth and Stephanie Louise Kwolek, I thought it prudent to mention just a few of the many amazing achievements that women have contributed to engineering. I choose these 3 women for different reasons. Lillian Gilbreth was an American Industrial Designer and Psychologist and was the first ever female member of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers in 1926. Lillian and her husband were huge involved in the beginning of human factors design and understanding. Something they achieved alongside a family of 12 children! Obviously Human Factors holds a special interest for me due to the candidates and clients I work with and Lillian Gilbreth was a trailblazer in this arena. Stephanie Louise Kwolek was an American chemist who during her work with synthetic fibres invented Kevlar. As an ex Police Officer, I probably don’t need to tell you what this invention meant to me. I always wore my vest and it wasn’t always necessary but always reassuring. Stephanie was working for Dupont at this time and for her achievement she was awarded the company’s Lavoisier Medal for outstanding technical achievement, the only woman to date to hold this award.
The last female I choose because she so succinctly demonstrates the old saying that “you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover” – also something that women I spoke to mentioned. The need to prove themselves not only as an Engineer but also as a woman. Hedy Lamarr was a glamorous Hollywood actress, starring in movies and on the stage in the 1930’s and 1940’s. During the second world war she was instrumental in inventing a communications system that was employed by the US Army. The wireless technology that spreads its signal over rapidly changing frequencies (frequency hopping) is the foundation for technology we use today such as Wi-Fi and blue tooth.
According to the Institute of Engineering and Technology, fewer than 10% of the UK’s engineers are women, the lowest percentage across Europe. Given the boom in engineering, in 2015 alone this industry sector contributed £486 billion to UK GDP, the focus on attraction and retention of the women needs to be focused on, if not just how many great ideas (such as those above) are going to be missed out on if the industry remains unattractive and unsustainable to so many.
With special thanks to all that took the time to speak to me and share their experiences
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Julie has written numerous interesting and well researched blogs on a wide range of topics related to Medical Devices and Human Factors. Please click here to read more of Julie's blogs and here to find out more about Julie.