'Overalls' image still persists say female engineers

Engineering in the UK needs a change of image if more women are to be encouraged to pursue a career in the industry according to several female motorsport engineers.

Speaking at an Institute of Mechanical Engineers panel discussion on women in engineering to celebrate National Women in Engineering day, Bernadette Collins, a performance and strategy engineer at the Force India Formula 1 team, believes that there is a misconception about what engineers actually do and that if this was rectified, more women would be likely to join the industry.

Collins said: “I think that the problem is that a number of people that I speak to don’t seem to understand what an engineer does. The problem in this country is that when you think of an engineer you think someone in overalls who goes to a factory doing some really manual job and that’s why most people when I tell them I’m an engineer and explain what I do, the perception changes.

“I think this country, and companies, needs to do a lot more to review the face and the image of engineering; that’s what’s gone wrong. That would be an improvement and that would get a thousand more girls into engineering next year.”

Collins’ views were echoed by Gemma Hatton, a data engineer at the Paras Racing British Touring Car Championship (BTCC) team and Leena Gade, a race engineer for Audi Sport Team Joest, who argued that more needs to be done at an earlier stage in the UK’s education system to encourage more women to take up engineering.

Hatton said: “Engineering isn’t a subject in itself [at school]. In college, if you could take an engineering subject that’s about how you take the maths and apply it to the physics situation, I think people would understand that’s what an engineer does and that maybe a way of getting that integration in earlier.”

Gade described how parents needs to encourage their children from an early age and work with schools to get more girls interested in the engineering industry: “Getting more women into engineering starts at a very young age. I was fortunate that my parents did not care what job I did and nothing was impossible for us and nothing in our family stopped us from doing that and that was a plus point, but I guess they were open minded enough to know that engineering was a career that anybody could do. Education starts quite early, it starts with the teachers and the parents and with the kids.”

The panel also disputed the idea recently proposed by Bernie Ecclestone, the long-term CEO of the CVC investment group that owns and runs Formula 1, that women would be more successful in motorsport if they had an all-female Formula 1 championship.

Collins reckons that there is no reason why women cannot compete at the same level as men in motorsport and suggested that it was a historical perception of the sport as not for women that was the real issue.

She said: “I’m all for equality and girls being given the same opportunities as guys, but an all-female championship is a step in the wrong direction. There is no reason why we can’t perform the same jobs, there’s no reason why girls can’t be as good as a guy – as an engineer, as a driver, whatever.

“There’s no physical disadvantage to driving a car these days.  The reason why we don’t have more female drivers currently is historical and is because enough girls are not being put into go-karts when they’re four years old by their father because it’s not the done thing, it’s not because girls aren’t good enough. It will change, but in reality it will take years to change.”

Collins’ thoughts were echoed by Hatton, who reckons that the teams competing in motorsport are more preoccupied with the talent and financial advantages of prospective drivers than their gender.

She said: “[An all-female championship] is just such an obvious segregation and it goes completely the opposite of what we are here trying to do. What the teams want are fast drivers with lots of money, they don’t care whether they’re female or whatever gender or race. It’s because you’ve got to be quick enough and when a girl finally does come along and is quick enough it will be great.”

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