Author: Jenny Beswick is a graduate of engineering who has worked in many scientific and engineering roles. Her career path started through her first UK telegraph engineering job and then grew internationally as her progress developed. Jenny now freelances and consults on projects.
A Woman’s World In Engineering
When stating I am a female who works in engineering the reactions back have always been “really” or “wow how do you cope” - this notion of a female in engineering does take people aback sometimes and that is because the field is almost always known as male territory; a male dominated industry that women are incapable of surviving in. However, in more recent times this perspective of women not coping in engineering is changing and the female population is branching out within this field but this needs to be encouraged more.
Overall within education a growth of studying has been seen in STEM subjects; Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics have gained more female interest over the years but mainly at GCSE level. WISE in their classroom to boardroom UK statistics 2012 report reported that between 2009 and 2012 the percentage of girls who took Physics and Chemistry grew by 82%. For some reason when it comes to advancing further into this subject field at a higher education level the interest level drops and this could possibly be because more females are becoming engineering apprentices.
Encouraging Females Into Engineering
Some of the brightest stars and leading pioneers in this engineering and scientific field are women, and so it is not of a great surprise to me why the female engineering apprentice levels are on the rise. Advancements in science and technology show no sign of stopping and so it is the optimal time to venture out and explore these fields of work. The industry certainly needs more engineering professionals as the current 8% figure of female engineering workers in the UK is very low.
According to the US Department of Labour, by 2018, nine out of ten of the fastest growing occupations will require a scientific or mathematical background. In the UK, Vince Cable, Secretary of State for Business, Innovations and Skills, has said that the lack of female engineers is an “enormous problem”.
So, how might we encourage more females into engineering? Most female students I have spoken to state that the role models are diverse but not enough is made about them in the media and I agree with this. If the media drilled into promoting these historic females leaders people would be more aware of some of their job posts and ones that are incredibly senior.
However, although these historic leaders are not on the front page of advertisements what is capturing attention is modern day culture. The Iron Man of the movies is a true inspiration to youngsters and TV programmes like the Big Bang Theory is hit with promoting female scientists and physicists. But I still feel that although this is great the history of women and female leaders in engineering needs to be known in order to encourage more females into engineering.
Four fine examples of female role models in engineering from around the world are:
Emily Warren Roebling
There are a surprising amount of women in history who have made incredible contributions to engineering. Martha J Coston, for example, was a widow who had no formal training, yet invented signal flares that are still used by the American Navy. But Emily Roebling decided to learn the necessary elements to be able to assist her husband in overseeing the building of the Brooklyn Bridge in 1872. Taking the initiative and learning brought women like Emily Roebling into the engineering public eye.
Jennifer Chayes holds the very exciting sounding position of ‘Distinguished Scientist and Managing Director’ of Microsoft New England and New York (both of which she co-founded). She is a true role model for any woman wanting to venture into computer science. She is the co-author of over 125 scientific papers and has 30 patents under her belt. She took a degree in Biology and Physics at Welseyan University before completing a PhD at Princeton and then a doctorate at Harvard. Quite the career path she has had, and she states that her spare time is spent ‘overworking’.
The first female president at Wentworth Institute of Technology, Boston, is helping to provide a positive role model to the university’s female alumni. She actively goes out into middle and high schools to talk about the role of women in engineering and the positive outcomes of such a career path. Originally from the former Yugoslavia, Pantic has held other leading positions at prestigious education institutions. She is a member of various organisations for women in engineering, mentoring and running outreach programmes with young women.
In a recent interview with the Daily Telegraph, Shard structural engineer Roma Agrawal (aged 29) said that her everyday work involved “making buildings and bridges stand up” and her basic job was redefining skylines. Agrawal grew up in India and studied Physics at Oxford University, not really knowing what career path she wanted. It was picking up a prospectus from Imperial College that persuaded her to pursue this particular industry. Her company, WSP has a surprising 20% female workforce.
I found it challenging working in engineering but felt motivated to succeed in a male dominated industry because I wanted to take the risk and change the dynamics like these female leaders mentioned. Working in a laboratory, on construction sites and within the nuclear field certainly took me on some adventures with struggles but what got me through was female determination and encouragement.
The fact of the matter is that there is a lack of appropriately skilled people for the amount of jobs in engineering – currently more than 20% remain unfilled. So anyone looking at a future in engineering is already at an advantage over most students. As Roma Agrawal says, “If you’re a good engineer it doesn’t matter what your background is... [or] your gender or ethnicity.” So take the risk and venture into engineering.