Three perspectives on Women in Engineering

Posted by Marianne Hinson, Dr Lesley Thompson and Professor Dame Ann Dowling on 08 December 2015

To support National Women in Engineering Day, EPSRC asked three leading figures to give their perspective on improving the number of women engineers.

We must work harder to increase the talented pool of women in engineering

Professor Dame Ann Dowling is President of the Royal Academy of Engineering

By now I am sure you are aware that at 6% the UK has the lowest proportion of female engineers in the EU; the news is no better when compared to other parts of the world. In addition, in the UK, only 17% of engineering undergraduates, 8% of engineering professors and 4% of engineering apprentices are female.

As President of the Royal Academy of Engineering and a woman who has really enjoyed a career in engineering, I find these statistics hard to understand. Why have initiatives over the last three decades had so little impact on increasing the number of women in engineering careers across industry and academia, and, what else should be done to precipitate change?

The Science and Technology Select Committee Report into Women in Scientific Careers tells us that despite concerted attention it will take 50 or 80 years before we get gender equality if we just keep doing the same thing, hoping that the pipeline will produce more women. We must do something different to radically alter our approach if we are to accelerate change.

The fact so much has been done with little impact must be, at least in part, due to deeply rooted issues in our culture and society. From their early years, many girls are still taught to ‘play out’, and ultimately conform, to gender roles that lead to occupational segregation.

Attitudes that underpin perceptions like ‘boys are good at maths and girls are good at English’ are perpetuated right across society. They feed into the current situation where physics is the fourth most popular subject choice for boys at A Level but seventeenth for girls. The effects of these choices are reflected in the career choices of women and men, and whilst some employers and institutions in male dominated sectors do well at developing inclusive cultures that support hiring and retaining female engineers, others could do a lot better.

At the Academy we are working with EngineeringUK through Tomorrow’s Engineers on a schools programme to help inspire the next generation of engineers - vital if we are going to find those 1.8 million additional engineers we will require by 2022. We are also supporting professional engineering institutions and employers to increase the retention of women in the profession.

We now have 30 of our 36 professional engineering institutions signed-up to our Engineering Diversity Concordat, stimulating collaborative working on diversity and inclusion; and we have over forty engineering organisations taking action on diversity and inclusion through our Diversity Leadership Group. I am cautiously optimistic that our Academy diversity programme, together with wider societal initiatives like shared parental leave, reporting on equal pay, and the focus on women returners will make a positive difference.

But we need to do more to communicate why engineering is a rewarding career for men and women. Many young women are just not aware how creative engineering is - and how much it relies on communication, teamwork and interpersonal skills. I regularly talk to schools about engineering and this month delivered the Imperial College London's Annual Athena Lecture. I look forward to the roll-out of events to mark National Women in Engineering Day (NWED) as a day when we can combine to get the message out.

I’m certain that synchronising our efforts will quicken the pace of change. Wishing you a happy and productive National Women in Engineering Day.

We need to rebrand engineering careers

Marianne Hinson is Head of Aerodynamic Design and Technology at McLaren Racing, and has worked in Formula 1 aerodynamics for 15 years.

What do you get when you Google “women’s careers in engineering”? Mostly images of women in hard hats. Now, I am not knocking professions where you need that kit. But as a marketing tool for engineering careers it’s not terribly imaginative! We desperately need to do a better job selling engineering careers - the whole amazing spectrum of them - to girls and women.

I work in a very male-dominated industry - Formula 1. I’ve sometimes been the only female engineer among 100+ men. There are rarely more than two or three of us. This doesn’t bother me personally. But it bothers me that engineering generally struggles to attract young talent, especially women. Why doesn’t it appeal?

Let me tell you about my workplace and role. I work in a beautifully modern office. Our team carry out experiments in a highly technical wind tunnel facility, and we use supercomputers for simulated aerodynamic experiments. I am responsible for a group of design engineers who provide aerodynamic test designs for the race car (bodywork, wings etc), and another group who provide the technical tools we need to carry out successful experiments. I’ve never needed a hard hat or wielded a spanner - not that I wouldn’t be happy doing either. Actually I did wield a spanner once at one of my Dad’s amateur race meetings - but I doubt they’d let me loose on the F1 car.

When I look around me I see engineers in many fields: Aerodynamics, Mechanical, Electronics, Systems, Structural, Materials, Data, Simulation, Software... Anything is possible: getting your hands dirty on the race car; inventing and carrying out wind tunnel experiments; designing car parts and simulating their performance; creating code to analyse terabytes of data and coming up with intuitive ways to display the trends... the list goes on.

Our engineering is fun, challenging, innovative and fast-moving. It’s about seeing a problem and being creative about solving it, then working in a team to get the job done. It’s about inventing the kit you need, designing and making it, trying it out, and then pushing your idea that bit further...

What curious, creative, engineering-minded person wouldn’t enjoy that? Regardless of gender, and whether you conform to a girlie-girl or a lad’s-lad stereotype or anything in between, surely if you’re a problem solver and inventor that sounds like fun?

Yet clearly many girls and women don’t think so. Or maybe (my theory) they don’t even know it’s out there.

How do we grab their interest, and keep it? I’ve seen great work done to encourage girls to take STEM subjects in school. They’re keen initially, but are later at a loss as to where it might take them. I have heard I like Physics, but what can I do apart from be a Physics teacher? many times! It seems that they don’t realise the opportunities that are available, or what modern day engineering roles really look like.

There are many different kinds of engineers beyond those in the traditional disciplines - and correspondingly different workplaces and environments. But the careers information has not caught up with the modern era of engineering in our technologically-driven world.

We need to rebrand engineering careers, and market them to students from school age to university leavers. We need to expand and update the careers information, so that we raise awareness of the huge range of exciting - but perhaps unfamiliar - engineering careers out there. We need more female role models, and better visibility of what real engineering looks like today - preferably from a female viewpoint. We need to work on the images and the language that we use.

I don’t know exactly how we do all of this - that’s probably why I work in engineering and not marketing! But we need to make it happen because we are missing out on half the workforce at the moment. And lots of women and girls are missing out on a career that’s interesting, challenging and great fun!

A focus on positive action will create opportunity

Dr Lesley Thompson is Director of Science and Engineering at EPSRC.

When I was at school I was told that A-level Maths was not a 'female subject'. I'd be horrified if my daughters encountered this attitude today. Thankfully, things have moved on, though as Professor Dame Ann Dowling points out in her blog (above) until 'A' Level physics is as popular with girls as boys, young women aren't going to break through in enough numbers to change gender inequality in science and engineering.

One of the key aims of Women in Engineering Day is to “raise the profile of women in Engineering” and promote opportunity.

At EPSRC we are determined to address the challenge of equality and diversity across the spectrum and we are taking action at the highest level. This is outlined in a previous post by Dr Alison Wall, EPSRC Associate Director, and in our Equality and Diversity policy.

A positive example of progress was a recent meeting held by the Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering. The event, inspired by Professor Anthony Finkelstein from UCL (and member of EPSRC Council) focused on encouraging more women to get involved in science policy and government structures. Congratulations to Anthony for such positive action.

The Government as a whole aims to increase diversity in public appointments, raising the proportion of women appointed to public boards to 50% by 2015. In the meantime, it's heartening to see more female Vice Chancellors appointed recently (at Oxford and Imperial).

More recently, Tim Hunt's comments on women in science have thrown diversity in science into the spotlight.

In response, Professor Dame Athene Donald’s blog was correct in urging us all to take positive action on the broader issue. She suggested a list of twenty positive actions and called for every reader to carry out at least one (#just1action4WIS). Three that I’ve adapted and would really press home for us are:

  • Encourage a diverse range of people to apply for opportunities or attend events or workshops. This costs nothing. Think broadly of suitable people rather than choosing people who look or think as you do.
  • Encourage women to dare and take risks. In my experience women often think they can't and men assume they can when faced with something they've never done before.
  • Recognise the importance of family for women and men. Think about childcare commitments, work life balance and policies which support families.

Another positive action Athene backed was unconscious bias training. The leadership team at EPSRC undertook this. It was very helpful and I'd encourage others to take this up to develop staff.

EPSRC is committed to change and to improving equality and diversity in engineering …and in physical sciences and maths, and across the wider science research base.

You can read EPSRC's policies for researchers here and we really want to hear ideas from the science and engineering community on what else can we do.

Let's celebrate the successful careers of women on National Women in Engineering Day and let’s stand with Professor Ann Dowling , Marianne Hinson, Professor Athene Donald and many, many more across our community in effecting positive change in respect of the broader issue of equality, diversity and opportunity.

Author

In the following table, contact information relevant to the page. The first column is for visual reference only. Data is in the right column.

Marianne Hinson
Name: Marianne Hinson
Job title: Head of Aerodynamic Design and Technology
Department: Aerodynamic Design and Technology
Organisation: McLaren

In the following table, contact information relevant to the page. The first column is for visual reference only. Data is in the right column.

A portrait of Lesley Thompson
Name: Dr Lesley Thompson
Job title: Director of Science and Engineering
Organisation: EPSRC

In the following table, contact information relevant to the page. The first column is for visual reference only. Data is in the right column.

Professor Dame Ann Dowling
Name: Professor Dame Ann Dowling
Job title: President
Organisation: Royal Academy of Engineering