Nearly one hundred years ago, Beatrice 'Tilly' Shilling was beginning an electrical engineering apprenticeship. A pioneer in more ways than one, what does her legacy mean today and are things any different for today's female engineering apprentices?
Beatrice ‘Tilly’ Shilling crossed boundaries. A ground-breaking aeronautical engineer and successful motorcycle racer, she had known by the age of 15 that she wanted to be an engineer. Then again, this was 1920s’ Britain and Shilling had chosen a profession that wasn’t easy for a young woman to enter, however skilled - she had already been maintaining her own motorcycle for several years - or however great her enthusiasm.
Yet the stars were about to align for Shilling in the form of Margaret Partridge, who ran an electrical engineering company and was, herself, a forward-thinker for the time and greatly involved with the fledgling Women’s Engineering Society (WES). In 1926, Shilling began a three-year apprenticeship with Partridge’s company as an electrical engineer, installing domestic and industrial wiring and generators. Showing great potential in her chosen profession, Partridge urged her to further her career by taking a degree in electrical engineering at Manchester University, with support from WES in the form of an interest-free loan to pay for her tuition.
Shilling enrolled in 1929, as one of only two women students, during the first year that any women had joined the course. Alongside her studies, she took her love of motorbikes a step further by taking up motorcycle racing with the university club. Shilling graduated with honours in 1932 and stayed on for another year to undertake an MSc in mechanical engineering.
Following her graduation in 1933 she initially worked as a research assistant for Dr G.F. Mucklow, working on single-cylinder supercharged engines. During this time Shilling was still very much into racing motorcycles and had started racing her Norton M30 500 cc motorcycle at Brooklands, the world’s first purpose-built 2.75-mile motor racing circuit and aerodrome built near Weybridge in Surrey, England. In 1934, she became only the second woman to gain a Brooklands Gold Star for lapping the track at 106mph.
In 1936, Shilling was recruited to the Royal Aircraft Establishment (RAE), an early forerunner of today’s Defence Science and Technology Laboratory, where she became the leading specialist in aircraft carburettors, work for which she is perhaps best known. It had become apparent at the beginning of the Second World War, during the Battle of France and Battle of Britain in 1940, that RAF pilots were dealing with a serious problem with the carburettors of Rolls-Royce Merlin engines in their fighters, such as the Spitfire and the Hurricane. When the plane went into a nose-dive, the resulting negative g-force would flood the engine's carburettor, causing the engine to stall.
German Bf 109 and 110 fighter planes used fuel-injection engines and, therefore, didn’t succumb to this problem, enabling them to out-manoeuvre a pursuing RAF fighter by flying a negative-g manoeuvre which the RAF fighter couldn't follow.
Shilling devised the RAE restrictor to solve the problem; a small metal disc with a hole in the middle, fitted into the engine's carburettor. It restricted and regulated the flow of fuel in order to prevent flooding, allowing the RAF to match the manoeuvrability of the Luftwaffe fighters. By March 1941, she had led a small team on a tour of RAF fighter bases, installing the devices in their Rolls-Royce Merlin engines. The restrictor was massively popular with pilots, as you would expect, who ‘affectionately’ named it ‘Miss Shilling's orifice’. How considerate.
After the war, Shilling continued to work in aircraft engineering on a variety of projects including the effect of a wet runway upon braking. She was once described by a fellow scientist as “a flaming pathfinder of women's lib” and she had always rejected any suggestion that as a woman she might be inferior to a man in technical and scientific fields. However, she was known to have a rather brusque manner and contempt for bureaucracy which led to an uneasy relationship with management. We can only speculate on whether this was a natural character trait, or an adopted affectation, a product of being a lone woman operating in what was, at the time, an almost exclusively male realm.
Shilling continued to work for the RAE until 1969, rising to a senior post in the mechanical engineering department. She held an honorary doctorate from the University of Surrey, was a Chartered Engineer and a member of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers and of WES, and was awarded an OBE for her efforts during the war.
Shilling had married her husband, George Naylor, who also worked at the RAE, in September 1938 and, according to anecdote, she had refused to marry him until he too had been awarded the Brooklands Gold Star. She and her husband continued to race motorbikes while their health still allowed it; and when it didn’t, they took up target shooting.
Fast-forward 90 years and how have things changed? What does engineering gender diversity in the UK look like today? Well…so much has changed in the intervening years, in attitudes and working culture, in education and training, but it seems the figures are yet to reflect a truly balanced work force.
According to the 2015 Skills & Demands from Industry IET Survey, only nine per cent of the engineering workforce is female; and the Engineering UK 2015: The State of Engineering report states that only six per cent of registered engineers and technicians (i.e. CEng, IEng, EngTech) are women. Added to this is the Government’s stark figure that in 2014/15, women accounted for only 3.4 per cent of all engineering apprenticeship starts, some 600 out of 17,530.
However, although we can’t get away from that last low figure, it’s worth focusing on the gains that we have made since Tilly Shilling began her engineering apprenticeship in what was a somewhat unwelcoming profession to women. A look at the current engineering apprenticeship workforce sees a dynamic, positive shift in the right direction. Who better to ask than Megan Dennison, Shilling’s present-day counterpart, a Rolls-Royce Higher Engineering Apprentice, Civil Large Engines, in Derby, UK. Dennison takes up the story, giving us an insight into the work-life of a modern-day engineering apprentice:
“My role is in the future engines team and I focus on the certification and validation process. It can involve taking some of our older engine projects and modifying hardware or implementing new technology. For example, for one project I modified the geometric design and system of an aero engine step aside gearbox. We had recently changed what material we made the gearbox out of and my modification allowed for design and cost improvements.
“I am currently working on the UltraFan compressor blades which are part of Rolls-Royce’s future engine technology. My work focuses on ensuring the technology is safe through research tasks, validating the hardware and assessing how we prove the new technology is airworthy through certification.”
Like Shilling, Dennison was drawn to science and engineering from an early age:
“I naturally loved STEM-based subjects throughout school, and the extracurricular courses that I attended really sparked my fascination in engineering. However, what really sold it to me was the work experience I had with Rolls-Royce. After I had completed my week there I knew I wanted to work for Rolls-Royce, and planned to join the graduate scheme after university. I did several more placements at the company and found out about the Rolls-Royce apprenticeship programme through my work experience supervisor.”
Going back to that age-old conundrum of attitudes and perceptions surrounding women in engineering, Dennison comments:
“I think within the engineering sector, women have always been well received and respected as much as any other employee. What is changing is the outside perception of women in engineering; society now encourages more women into the sector instead of pushing them down the ‘typically female’ career paths. I also think parenting and schooling has changed a lot. Girls are now encouraged to be whatever they want to be. Engineering is still a largely male-dominated sector, but that doesn’t affect me at all; I don’t really notice it.”
…And perhaps that’s the biggest change of all, a significant cultural shift has taken place since Shilling graduated all those years ago which has seen the negative perceptions all but disappear; enough for us to arrive at a place where it is unexceptional for women to enter the engineering workforce. Let the statistics catch up and perhaps the day will come when we celebrate the achievements of the engineering greats without reference to their gender.