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Pioneering women’s tales can inspire the talent of tomorrow

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Shining a spotlight on the female heroes from its history will help engineering to attract the next generation of young women.

Today, just 12 per cent of engineers in the UK are women. Likewise, there are 165,000 engineering students in the UK, but only 26,000, or 16 per cent of them, are female. Research shows that girls drop out of educational pathways at every decision point, despite performing as well as boys in STEM subjects.

Unacceptable? Certainly. Unjust? Of course. But these statistics also represent a missed opportunity, and a big problem for our ability to stay competitive, foster innovation and ‘build back better’ after the Covid-19 pandemic. With a retiring workforce and technology creating new opportunities, engineering is suffering from severe skills shortages. New talent is needed urgently.

Most of us agree that we need to create more inclusive and progressive workplace cultures that enable people from all backgrounds to reach the top of the engineering profession. We also need to build diverse talent pipelines from primary school level up, that ensures more women stay in relevant education and are equipped to enter the profession in the first place.

More than this, we must shine a much brighter light on the women from history whose engineering achievements live on today. It’s astonishing to note just how much of a role women have historically played in engineering innovation, against all the odds. We must tell the stories of these engineering heroes to help inspire and empower today’s women and girl engineers to forge their own world-changing path.

This year’s Women’s History Month ends on 31 March, but we can continue to take inspiration from our female engineering heroes from the past to inspire the talent of tomorrow.

Take Caroline Haslett, an electrical engineer who was the first secretary of the Women's Engineering Society and the founder and editor of its journal, The Woman Engineer. Born in 1895, before women could even legally vote in elections, her work saw her harness electrical power to free women from the burden of household chores, in an age before widespread electric light, heating or appliances. In 1920 she established a company for women engineers, who were normally barred from the profession. Throughout her life, she worked to promote and champion women and to help them pursue their own talents and interests.

Hertha Ayrton registered 26 patents in her lifetime and, in 1899, was the first woman ever to read her own paper on electric arcs before the Institution of Electrical Engineers (the predecessor organisation of the IET). For her work, Ayrton was also the first female ever elected a member of the IEE that same year. The next woman was not elected until almost 60 years later, in 1958.

Margaret Partridge (pictured third from left at the top of this page in a photograph from the Summer 1969 issue of The Woman Engineer), meanwhile, founded a company just after the First World War that brought electricity to small towns and rural villages for the first time.  She also helped young women who were interested in engineering as a career by offering apprenticeships specifically for young women leaving school.

Sarah Guppy, born even earlier, at the end of the 18th century, was a designer, engineer, and inventor of several products, and the first woman to patent a bridge, in 1811, some 210 years ago. She was born in Birmingham at the dawn of the industrial revolution which would change the face of that city and give birth to some of our greatest engineering and technological innovations.

There are dozens of other examples of historical women who achieved great things in our profession whose names remain relatively unknown.

It was always a source of sadness to me that the walls of the electrical engineering department at my university were lined with electrical engineers from history who were all men. This is not to discount the achievements of Faraday, Ampere and others, but simply to say that we cannot expect to attract and inspire enough young women to take up engineering as a career if they don’t believe it to be a place for them and have no one like them to look up to and identify with.

We have an amazing legacy of engineering talent and invention to draw on in this country. Only by fostering all of our young people’s talent in future will we beat our biggest challenges, including energy sustainability and climate change.

Polly Osborne is an electrical engineer specialising in whole energy system consulting and sustainability at Burns & McDonnell.

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