Emma Shires

Women engineers: building a bright future

The ranks of women engineers are slowly increasing - swelled by an ever-growing number of female recruits determinedly shifting the mindset that the industry is a ‘dirty hands’ business suitable only for men.

“We have a chronic shortage of engineers in the country as a whole, at graduate, post graduate and craftsmen level,” says Dr Cable. “Women are a great source of potential, which, as a country, we have not tapped before. It partly goes back to stereotypes. Girls doing dolls, boys doing cars...it is a hard slog because we are fighting against an old cultural tradition.”

The landscape is changing

There is no denying that the UK doesn’t exactly top the engineering charts - we currently have the lowest proportion of engineering professionals across the EU of which around 90 per cent are male. But the landscape is not entirely bleak. The ranks of women engineers are slowly increasing - swelled by an ever-growing number of female recruits determinedly shifting the mindset that the industry is a ‘dirty hands’ business suitable only for men.

Women like Tanya Budd, for example, who at the age of 17 designed the HypoHoist man overboard recovery system as part of an A level project. Budd went on to win the Young Engineer for Britain award 2005 and her invention is now in commercial production with revenues hitting the million mark. And 26-year-old Emily Cummins, whose sustainable refrigerators and water carriers for sub-Saharan Africa garnered her accolades such as Barclays Woman of the Year 2009 and JCI Ten Outstanding Young Persons of the World Award in 2010.

Emma Shires is another example of a woman flying high ‘in a man’s world’. Shires studied aerospace engineering and later combined it with her interest in sport to become an engineer for the International Tennis Federation.

“I do a lot of testing of balls and rackets - I really enjoy using the wind tunnel and doing research on tennis ball aerodynamics,” she says. “I will definitely stay in this field as I like the fact that the engineers are always pushing boundaries and developing new technology. There are also so many career options as it’s such a broad subject and I think I would get bored in other industries.”

Ironically, that women engineers are still in the minority is actually proving a boon to Vince Cable’s mission to spread the word that engineering is an exciting, high-value career option. Awards such as the IET Young Woman Engineer of the Year not only recognise the achievement of young women in engineering, but provide inspirational role models and ambassadors for the profession.  

The Elite Engineering Programme

Shires recently became an ambassador for the Elite Engineering Programme (EEP), which aims to encourage young disadvantaged people into the arena. The UK’s first engineering educational programme supports young people from the age of 12 by establishing the profession as a credible career path from school right through to university and even into internships.

Another EEP champion is Nadine Young who studied engineering with product design and after graduating in 2012 went on to become a graduate mechanical engineer at Babcock International.

“I’m part of the Innovation and Development team, where I research new ideas and technologies and progress them into projects,” explains Young.

“I’m also passionate about encouraging other young people into engineering so was really pleased to become an EEP champion. I received an attainment scholarship for my A level grades and that gave me an incentive to work harder for my engineering degree. But I think having the support that EEP offers for each step of your academic journey definitely makes it an even more appealing career option.”

Industry initiatives designed to attract women into engineering

Industry-wise there are now many initiatives designed to attract females. Take Jaguar Land Rover for example. In addition to its sponsored undergrad training scheme, the company also holds networking events.

One recent attendee is Cora Moffat, who studied mechanical engineering with product design at Glasgow University.

“I was really excited to meet a lot of women managers and graduates and could see that there was a very strong community at Jaguar Land Rover,” says Moffat. “Afterwards I won a trip down to the site at Gaydon and got to drive vehicles and saw all the other facilities. I realised how cutting edge and exciting it was, and it really made my mind up about going into the field.”

Moffat is now on the Jaguar Land Rover graduate programme, a two-year rotation of all its departments. Her current placement is in ‘human machine interface and accommodation usage’ where she does everything from fashioning clay models to test-driving vehicles.

“You’re fully employed by Jaguar Land Rover from the minute you start until you choose to leave,” Moffat explains. “Support is excellent. They’re aware that you have come straight from university but they don’t shy away from giving you responsibility and there’s an open forum for asking questions.

“Male colleagues have been as supportive as the female ones – the only issue I’ve ever had is possibly being young but it’s never been a reflection of my gender,” she adds. “It’s a really dynamic environment to be in so much so that I am now part of the networking scheme to encourage young women to consider going into the automotive industry.”

How times have changed

While the engineering playing field is undoubtedly uneven, it is considerably more aligned than a few decades ago. One person who can attest to this and who played a key role in improving the balance is Dr Joanna Kennedy OBE.

A civil engineer by profession Dr Kennedy has been a director at Arup, one of the UK’s largest firms of consulting engineers, since 1996 and is also the company’s Global Leader of Programme and Project Management. During her 40-year career she has held a number of public appointments, among them membership of the Engineering Council: she is also an elected Fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering. In 2008 she was named Woman of Outstanding Achievement - For Leadership and Inspiration to Others.

“Looking back to when I first started it’s clear things have changed for the better,” says Dr Kennedy. “When I worked on building sites in the 70s it was always greeted with great surprise but now there’s much more acceptance. And in terms of attracting people into the profession I think we have made good inroads.”

Arup is listed in the Times Top 50 Employers for Women. A leader in workplace gender equality, currently around 30-40 per cent of its graduate recruits are women, whereas when Dr Kennedy joined there were only a handful.

Key issues that Dr Kennedy was instrumental in changing are career progression and enabling mid-career female engineers to combine work with family.

“The big issue for me was making changes within my company, enabling me to have more flexible working arrangements and better career break policies while bringing up my two sons,” Dr Kennedy explains. “I certainly would have dropped out of the profession if I hadn’t had those opportunities. I also think it’s very important for companies to give both women and men the opportunity for exposure at senior level,” she says.

Redressing the gender balance – the future looks bright

The future for careers in engineering looks bright. And while business, government and education are pulling together to redress the gender balance women at all career levels can also help the cause by being more proactive.

“I had to push quite hard and didn’t have special training courses,” says Dr Kennedy. “But I gained a pretty broad experience and through that I eventually found what I was good at. I’ve preferred to be seen as one of the blokes rather than have any special treatment as a woman. On the other hand because I am a woman I have been more distinctive and have made full use of that opportunity.”

A philosophy shared by Cora Moffat.

“I would definitely recommend that women don’t shy away from opportunity based on stereotype – try something and take a hand in shaping your own career rather than listening to negative hype. Think about what you’re passionate about and make your own choices,” she concludes.

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