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Peggy Hodges

Women engineers: are more role models the answer?

Image credit: WES

This year marks the centenary of the Women’s Engineering Society, but still, after 100 years, only 11 per cent of engineers are female. Can a campaign to name more women role models change this?

One hundred years ago this year, a small committee of influential women – designers, munitions factory managers and wives of eminent engineers – gathered together to found the Women’s Engineering Society (WES). It was a time of hope. The First World War had ended and limited women’s suffrage had been won.

In the Society’s first Woman Engineer Journal, the declared aim was to “encourage and stimulate all women who are interested in engineering” and “be a means towards removing the prejudices and artificial restrictions which now prevent women from taking up engineering as a trade or profession”. (The Journal is now fully digitalised, indexed and freely available.) The women who’d gathered together on 23 June 1919 sensed a new dawn.

Only it wasn’t. The unions and industry rallied behind the 1919 Restoration of Pre-War Practices Act, which forced women to leave their wartime roles, guaranteeing men return to their former workplaces. And a century later, according to the Society, women still make up just 11 per cent of professional engineers in the UK, the lowest rate in Europe.

It’s been estimated less than 8 per cent of apprentices in engineering and manufacturing technologies are female, although different figures are put forward by different organisations. Despite numerous initiatives to tackle this inequity, these numbers have not increased and may have even declined since 2012.  In construction, planning and the built environment, female apprentices may be as low as 2 per cent.

So what can be done in this significant centenary year? The lack of role models is increasingly cited as a reason why young women don’t progress into engineering. “We need to make girls at school think that engineering is a job they can do and role models are key in that. There’s a rich history that’s just not understood,” says Dawn Childs, group engineering director at Merlin Entertainments and WES president. “It’s vitally important to do more to show these truly remarkable ladies.” As part of a year of centenary celebrations and agitations, WES is addressing this in its ‘Remember the Past’ campaign. A team is contributing profiles of a broad range of women engineers to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (DNB). Currently the DNB has over ten times more entries for engineers named ‘John’ than for all female engineers.


Case study

Elizabeth Donnelly

Elizabeth Donnelly, WES’s chief executive officer, “grew up fascinated by Amy Johnson setting long-distance flying records. As a young girl with three brothers, it was wonderful to read about women achieving great things in their own right. In 2005 I was invited to work in aerospace and I was a founding member of the Royal Aeronautical Society’s (RAeS) Women in Aviation and Aerospace Committee. I discovered Johnson was the first woman to obtain a ground engineer’s ‘C’ Licence, making her an aviator and an engineer, and I founded the RAeS Amy Johnson Named Lecture as a result. [Last year’s speaker was Air Vice Marshal Susan Gray.] I’m now very proud to be the chief executive officer of the Women’s Engineering Society, where Amy is a past-president.”


Other organisations are contributing to the rediscovery of individual women and their achievements. In the City Art Gallery in Edinburgh, automobile engineer Dorothee Pullinger is being celebrated in an exhibition of her life and work. In 1914, she had applied to join the Institution of Automobile Engineers. She was refused on the grounds that ‘the word person means a man and not a woman’. She went on to become a founding member of WES and manage the factory that designed the Galloway car, made by women for women.

Marine engineer Victoria Drummond has been included on a shortlist of Scottish heroines to be added to the Hall of Heroes at the National Wallace Monument in Stirling, Scotland, which contained no women until this year. Drummond was the first British woman to serve as a Merchant Navy chief engineer and the first woman member of the Institute of Marine Engineers. She was rejected 37 times for a Board of Trade Certificate as a ship’s engineer before she finally became the first woman ever to be awarded one.

Anne Locker, library and archives manager at the IET and a DNB contributor, identifies a need to add more women to this familiar short list. “It’s boring hearing about the same women all the time,” she says. “It’s not just one or two. If you Google women engineers and hardly anyone comes up, you assume they don’t exist.” Young women engineers today testify to not having been told about their predecessors.

Twenty-three-year-old Jennifer Glover is studying for a PhD in engineering at Loughborough University and is chair of Student WES. “It’s clear that women aren’t getting the recognition they deserve,” she says. “I went to an all-girls school and I didn’t hear of one woman engineer.” Childs says: “I don’t recall having one female role model at all – not even one. At school we did the Industrial Revolution and I don’t recall any women engineers. It felt quite lonely.”

Chartered mechanical engineer Nicola Grahamslaw of SS Great Britain Trust says: “My only really famous role model growing up was [television presenter] Carol Vorderman. I loved the idea that she made being good at maths cool.”

“The more we highlight those that history forgot, the more we can inspire the next generation.”

Natalie Cheung, civil engineer

Role models don’t have to be celebrities or shining stars from a previous century. Glover says: “I never wanted to be a celebrity, but when researching careers I saw the aeronautical women of the Second World War in high pressure situations in a man’s field. They not only were pivotal in the war effort, but pushed innovation in the newest technologies, knowing they would never receive recognition. They weren’t the elite social groups but practical, working women. They wanted to make a difference but not on the front pages. Quietly brilliant is a very British way to be.”

Is it better to have ordinary women as role models rather than exceptional ones? Locker says: “The debate has matured over the last few years. Rather than highlighting those who were exceptional, we’ve started to talk about career scientists’ jobs. Not everyone is going to be Marie Curie.”

Grahamslaw agrees: “Often the role models we see are the ones who’ve invented or pioneered something, or won awards. But for young people who aren’t top of their class at school, actually I think relatable role models might be better. My younger cousin decided she wanted to be an engineer because she saw that I enjoyed it and had a good salary! That was before I’d won any awards or recognition so it had nothing to do with perceived success, just that I like my job.”

Childs says historical subjects are important, but to make a difference “what we really need is young girls early in their careers going back to their schools and letting other girls know about their work. The other really important thing is showing the breadth and diversity of women and their roles.”


Role model

Stephanie Kwolek

Professor Emma Sparks, senior lecturer in the Centre for Systems Engineering at Cranfield University, holds Polish -American Stephanie Kwolek, who discovered Kevlar while working for chemical company DuPont, as her role model. In 1964, in anticipation of a gasoline shortage, Kwolek’s team began searching for a new lightweight strong fibre to use for light, strong tyres, inventing Kevlar. “She influenced me in my early career when I was a research scientist developing future soldier systems within government,” says Professor Sparks. “Stephanie died aged 90 in 2014. Her discovery enabled us to develop systems that continue to protect our Armed Services in their roles across the world.”


Natalie Cheung, a civil engineer and YMCA Young Leader of the Year, put out a call on Twitter: ‘Please can someone/anyone name a historical engineer who is an ethnic minority and female? I ... can’t think of any women who were not white. Feeling disheartened.’ WES responded with: ‘Mrs Ying Hsi Yuan, a civil engineer trained in Peiping in the 1930s, who worked on bridge design in China before taking a postgraduate degree at the University of Liverpool but we know little else about her.’ Cheung says: “I concluded I did not know enough engineers to be inspired by them. This was particularly the case with women and ethnic minority engineers. The more we highlight those that history forgot, the more we can inspire the next generation.”

Ursula Heng, delivery transformation engineering leader at Procter & Gamble and director of communications for WES, says: “Role models are vital for women engineers. In a world without trailblazers who challenge the status quo, stereotypes get normalised, which is dangerous as it ingrains fixed perceptions within society.” She hopes WES’s centenary campaigns will “inspire diversity through recognition and support of the individual first”. Heng cites her own role models as Winston Churchill, Ada Lovelace, Michelle Obama and Isambard Kingdom Brunel.

Many women engineers cited men as their role models. Dr Sarah Peers, founder director of engineering and education consultancy Peers & Peers and former vice president of WES, names Alan Turing “not a woman nor engineer, of course, but an outsider. Reading about his life when I was 20 was a revelation.” Grahamslaw’s major influence also came from a man. “My inspiration for studying STEM came from my male high school physics teacher who supported and encouraged me, as well as inspiring me with his own passion for the subject.”

The agent for Helen Sharman – Britain’s first astronaut and the first woman to visit the Mir space station in 1991 – says: “You may find that the best role models for superb, brilliant and inspiring women were superb, brilliant and inspiring men. We’re not keen on things which are gender biased, to be honest, as we try very hard to be fully inclusive in everything we do.” Sharman herself declined to contribute to this article.

For some it’s projects, not people, that were key in attracting them into the industry. “My decision to study engineering was inspired by a lecture I attended as part of the Engineering Education Scheme, about how using the evidence they found, engineers were able to work out exactly what the cause and chain of events leading up to the 2000 Concorde accident were, then design safety improvements based on that knowledge,” says Grahamslaw. “I was excited about the idea of engineers using science in that way to solve a problem. So it was the projects rather than specific people that inspired me.”

For Heng it was an era: “The Industrial Age was a huge inspiration to me when I was growing up – an era where exponential technical strides were being made on a global scale by the UK. It changed economies, social infrastructure and provided new opportunities that were creatively harnessed to realise a better future.”

So are role models of women from the past effective in encouraging women of the present to be engineers? Do they have any effect on the 11 per cent? Are they the answer to the century-old conundrum of how to ensure women have equal access to engineering and an ambition to be engineers? Grahamslaw isn’t sure. “Generally, I see this message in the media that we need more role models, but actually there are so many great role models in engineering already; the efforts to recognise these people and communicate their stories to young people just need to be better co-ordinated and more evidence-based. The problem with role model campaigns is there’s no evidence they actually work.”

She points to the work of Dr Jessica Wade, a postdoctoral researcher at Imperial College London who has put over 270 entries for women scientists on to Wikipedia. But Dr Wade has also commented: “There’s so much energy, enthusiasm and money going into all these initiatives to get girls into science. Absolutely none of them is evidence-based and none of them work. It’s so unscientific, that’s what really surprises me.”

WES is determined to make a difference. Glover says: “I don’t see why you can’t try role models. At the moment we’re not meeting our targets to get women into engineering. Things have not changed enough. I’m going to be part of that change.”

For more information on WES Centenary events, visit wes.org.uk

A Car For Women and Other Stories’, an exhibition starring Dorothee Pullinger, is at City Art Gallery, Edinburgh.


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