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The unchanging status of female engineers during the last 90 years

Can it really be the case that women in engineering have made little progress in almost a century? Archive copies of The Woman Engineer magazine from the 1920s certainly seem to suggest so.

It won't be news to readers of E&T that the percentage of women engineers is woefully low, and is not increasing. At the IET Skills Shortage Summit in June, the annual survey of the industry made familiar reading.

"Only 7 per cent of the engineering workforce is female, highlighting that the UK has a persistent problem in encouraging women into the engineering and IT sectors," the survey states.

Clearly it's important that women should be given the widest possible career choices. But given the shamefully low percentage, the chances are that the majority of people reading this article are men. Why should the lack of women engineers matter to them?

"Women bring a diversity that a non-mixed team doesn't have, and the skills that they bring include... a desire to produce an excellent product that delights the customer and solves a problem," explains Dawn Bonfield, vice president of the Women's Engineering Society.

This argument is expanded by EA Technology's Dr Mary Gillie. "Engineering uses science and technology for the benefit of society ' men and women, young and old," she says. "We have more chances of better serving the needs of society as a whole if those working in engineering reflect a cross-section of society."

Senior structural engineer Roma Agrawal agrees, saying, "Having more women and indeed other minorities in the engineering workforce is vital to ensure we are getting the best talent into our profession. A diverse team made of a mix of different genders, backgrounds, ages, ethnicities... leads to better innovation and results."

Women do sometimes work in a different way from men, bringing a different perspective to the workplace and providing an alternative way of looking at problems. "Women can bring skills in people and communication, social responsibility, resilience, team organisation, creativity, and attention to detail," says Bonfield. "There is also evidence that a mixed team will have greater productivity than a non-mixed team."

It's certainly true that in the past there have been some disasters caused by all-male engineering teams failing to take into account the fact that women users of a product have different needs. The first airbags were designed to fit the body shapes of the male engineers working on the project. When people with smaller body sizes, such as women and children, were involved in accidents, they risked being injured by the very product that was supposed to keep them safe.

More recently, voice- recognition software was initially calibrated to recognise the voices of the developers ' who were all men. Launching a product that doesn't work for half the population is not a winning business strategy. There is a shortage of skilled engineers, so excluding 50 per cent of your potential new engineers is just mad. Besides, if you want to employ the best engineers, or work with the cream of the crop, then expanding the potential pool of candidates should raise standards overall.

Changed society

The Women's Engineering Society (WES) was founded in 1919, after the end of the First World War, to address the problems faced by women who had contributed to the war effort by working in engineering and allied fields, but who now faced opposition from the establishment. The government, the industry and the unions all expected women to step aside and go back to being housewives, leaving the jobs to men returning from the trenches.

Naturally, many women were not happy to be dismissed in this fashion, and they wished to continue working as engineers.

The WES started publishing a quarterly journal, The Woman Engineer, to help support women engineers and to push for change. The first issue was in December 1919, price 3d. The IET archives hold a complete set of issues, and they make fascinating reading.

The first issue reports that: "The outlook for women in the engineering world has become increasingly gloomy, and with the passing of the Restoration of Pre-War Practices bill, the position seemed almost hopeless."

This bill fulfilled a wartime pledge made to reinstate practices which had been abandoned during the war. One of its provisions was to bring back the union closed shop ' and since women were barred from joining unions, firms were no longer allowed to employ women in engineering roles, even if they wanted to.

Men who were opposed to women working as engineers used the arguments that are still familiar today, that "as soon as they have gained sufficient knowledge to be useful" they would get married. One correspondent in the journal rebuffed this neatly: "We would point out that there are very many women of this generation who will be unable to marry even if they wish to, and also, extraordinary as it may seem to him, there are some who prefer a life of 'single blessedness'."

The journal did its best to encourage women to keep fighting for their place in the engineering workforce. It printed encouragement for women wishing to train as engineers, such as the article, 'The Training of a Civil Engineer' by Iris A Cummins. She points out: "During the war countless ideas and ancient prejudices had to be scrapped and there was an abundance of work to be had. While, to-day, there is a natural tendency to revert to the pre-war state of affairs and to keep the door shut, still this should not deter the qualified woman from endeavouring to keep this door open and to assert her right to earn her living in this profession."

It wasn't all bleak. In 'Notes from an Engineering Shop' the journal reports on "A small factory in a remote part of the British Isles. This place is still 'carrying on' under practically the same conditions as during the war, that is, with women as fitters, turners, millers, grinders, etc., under men and women supervisors."

Not all men were hostile to females pushing their way into the profession. The Rt Hon Lord Weir of Eastwood wrote in the journal: "The denial of opportunity to women to undertake such work as their skill and capacity fits them for is simply one example of the many inconsistencies and hardships which characterise the present industrial situation... unless we can broaden the labour supply of this country, its production capacity will be insufficient to meet the needs of the Empire." The needs of the Empire, it seemed, trumped the restrictive practices of the unions.

Sir Charles Bright wrote: "As a rule, women are undoubtedly superior to men in matters of detail, and this especially applies to the detail associated with delicate physical and electrical work of a testing character."

Progress was slow, but with such friends in high places women managed to claw their way into the workforce. In 1920, the Institutions of Civil Engineers, Mechanical Engineers and Automobile Engineers admitted women members for the first time.

But it was two steps forward, one step back: the depression of the early 1930s brought high unemployment, serving to discourage female employment. On the bright side, the same period saw new fields, such as aviation, open up and provide new opportunities for women.

Some technical industries were more friendly towards women: in the 1950s almost half of the computer programmers working at Ferranti were women, who were chosen for their accurate and reliable work. This was quite common in the industry, although generally it was because in the early days of computing, programming was considered to be clerical work.

These days, the battles about whether women are allowed to work as engineers are won, but the proportion of women remains pitifully small. Women are no longer prevented from becoming engineers ' they just don't want to.

Education, Education, Education

The problem starts early. Girls are not choosing the subjects at school which would lead to an engineering career; they are not considering engineering an option for their future.

"Girls probably imagine that engineering means dirt, spanners, engines. But 90 per cent of the jobs are not like that," said Bonfield.

Delphine Ryan, who is an engineering student at Macclesfield College, studying Aircraft Maintenance, expands on this theme. "The word 'engineering' derives from the Latin word ingenium which means 'skills, genius, invention'. Since the beginning of time, from methods of transportation, to agriculture, construction, irrigation, sewerage systems, ancient and new war machines, children's toys, mobile phones, satellites, household appliances, furniture, textiles, manufacture, dentistry, hospitals, medicine, ad infinitum... someone, somewhere, individually or as a group, had a bright idea and made that idea a reality: that is the world of engineering and it is a world open to anyone who wishes to enter it."

Zoe George, a recent engineering graduate now in her first job as a chemical engineer, says that people are not taught that there are different types of engineering at school. It's all seen as one big subject. She also thinks that "we need better communication between the generations: the career progression needs to be explained".

Clearly STEM teachers and careers advisers need to be onboard. Dr Mary Gillie suggests poster campaigns to try to get people to recognise the subconscious assumptions they make. "We should make teachers aware of this, so they don't discourage girls, and allow children to spread their wings in whatever direction they want. This is not just girls who want to be engineers, but, for example, boys who want to be nurses."

Bonfield thinks companies need to get more involved with schools. "They need to get into schools and show what the career means. Companies should open up their doors to show what working in engineering is like."

Some of this is already happening. E&T visited Newham Sixth Form College ('NewVIc') in east London and spoke to Barbara Walsh, the engineering programme team manager. She agreed that a lot of the responsibility lies with careers advisers in schools.

"Mechanical engineering is seen as a dirty job, a man's job. Girls are encouraged to do textiles and food technology," she said. They are just not told engineering is an option. This is reflected in the mix of students studying engineering at the college: in the last academic year, 70 boys and one girl studied mechanical engineering at level'3; 45 boys and no girls at all studied electrical engineering. Things were a little better in construction: 36 boys and four girls. It seems, girls can picture themselves in project management roles in the construction sector, or as architects or civil engineers, but not as mechanical or electrical engineers.

At NewVIc, a small number of girls are studying STEM subjects, with a maths and physics combination at A-level leading some girls to go on to university to study engineering. A recently introduced specialist pathway at the college, the TAMES (technology, architecture, mathematics, engineering and science) is aimed at students with an ambition to pursue a career in the physical sciences, engineering, architecture or computing ' and it's proving popular with girls.

But with the recent release of A-level results, the IET warned that the lack of females studying maths and physics is a worry which could put economic prosperity at risk. IET policy advisor Jayne Hall says: "Maths and physics are crucial gateway subjects and vital to the industry and economy as a whole... action needs to be taken at an early stage by encouraging females into these subjects... Currently, female students effectively rule themselves out of an engineering career at age 14 by not studying maths and physics. We must change this, so that students can make informed subject choices."

When girls do study STEM subjects they do very well. Barbara said that the previous year, NewVIc had two girls studying mechanical engineering and one in electrical engineering. They all passed ' two of them with very high grades. She thinks this is because there is more pressure on them to do well.

A recent report from Pearson, which runs the BTEC awards that these students are studying, shows that girls studying STEM subjects outperform boys in the UK. "When girls do sign up to these vital subjects they flourish," president of Pearson, Rod Bristow, says. For example, more than a third of the girls studying engineering at level 2 gained a distinction, compared with 20 per cent of boys; at level 3, 14 per cent of girls and 9 per cent of boys achieved the highest grade.

Plus ça change

One organisation that is doing its best to encourage more girls to choose engineering as a career is the Women's Engineering Society ' yes, that's the same organisation that started publishing the journal back in 1919, still going strong.

WES supports women working in engineering and inspires the next generation. It provides role models and mentors for students. One person who benefited is Zoe George. She explains how helpful WES can be in allaying fears about joining a male-dominated profession.

"People have ideas [that] they won't be treated equally," she says. "They hear horror stories and so avoid the subject completely. Women also worry about things like maternity leave ' what happens when they need to take time out from work to start a family?" WES addresses those fears.

The IET itself is also working to raise the profile of women in engineering and encourage more women to join the professions. It runs the Young Women Engineer of the Year Awards, which honour the very best early-career female engineers. The next awards will be in December 2013.

However, there is still a general perception that engineering is for boys, not girls.

Last April the retail chain Boots was forced to apologise after it categorised its toys for boys or girls. Guess which gender got the Science Museum-branded toys? The company initially refused to change this, saying that marketing science toys to boys was not stereotyping but designed to make their shops "easier to navigate" and was due to "customer feedback". You might think a pharmacy chain, being science-based, would know better.

It's clear that there is a long way to go. There is no single big change that will solve the problem, but lots of little things that will, over time, eventually, with any luck, make a difference.

Maybe, if we revisit this topic in, say, ten years' time, things will have changed for the better? Surely, surely it won't take another 90?

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