Ringing the changes for women in engineering
Breaking stereotypes Leading women in the field of engineering gathered for a round table to discuss the issues facing female entrants into the profession today.
They were ICE fellow Professor Denise Bowers of Leeds University, Roma Agrawal, a chartered structural engineer at WSP and Michelle Richmond, Director of membership at the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET), Louise Aiken, Sigma Engineer at BAE Systems and Helen Kilbrine. The moderator was Virginia Blackburn.
VB: What led you to want to have a career in engineering?
Denise Bower: I like practical things and problem solving, my dad’s a builder and I liked being on site and I’m interested in history and geography, so I wanted to be able to do things that would contribute to history.
Roma Agrawal: I always loved maths and physics and knew I wanted to be a scientist from the time I was very young but what I didn’t know was how to apply that so I decided to do a physics degree. I wanted a technical career, but I wanted to contribute and touch things and engineering was the answer to that.
Michelle Richmond: I was desperate to leave school at 16. I applied to banks and for an apprenticeship and I got the apprenticeship first so it was fluke rather than passion that led me going into engineering. Having found how to apply engineering principles I fell in love with it.
Louise Aiken: I excelled in Maths and Science in school and my parents encouraged me to pursue these subjects (my Dad is an engineer) which, combined with the fact that I wanted to get involved with cutting-edge technology, led me to Engineering.
Helen Kilbrine: My family worked abroad so I attended an international school where I studied a wide range of subjects for a Baccalauréat which certainly helped show where my true aptitude lay. I discovered I was good at science and maths which led to a 20-year career in chemical engineering which I am thoroughly enjoying.
VB: All of you come from an engineering background and that is common among women in engineering. So how will we find women whose parents work in the arts and to whom it would not occur to go into engineering?
RA: For me it’s about creative awareness because there’s so much about engineering that goes into the arts. Fashion and technology can work together. Make people aware that the sets in theatres that they’re watching are designed by engineers. Sound systems are designed by engineers. The manufacturing process for your clothes are designed by engineers. Engineering is at the heart of everything but we need to make that link.
DB: Language can narrow how people perceive engineering. We need to make that link: rather than talking about “building a bridge” we could talk more about “creating a crossing to connect communities”. Rather than “building the Olympic stadium” we could talk about creating the theatre for the greatest event this country has staged.
LA: The key is to ensure that STEM is promoted early to primary school children and that teachers ensure that both sexes get involved, as gender is not a barrier at such an early age.
HK: Industry, Government and Education need to work together to do everything we can to promote the study of STEM subjects. I am involved in Fluor’s schools outreach programme which includes running an annual engineering competition for local secondary schools. Our women engineers also go into schools to talk to students about how studying STEM subjects can open up a world of opportunities.
VB: Should we think about rebranding engineering and if so, how?
MR: We need to put forward that it’s modern and relevant. On the other hand engineers are incredibly proud to be called engineers and wouldn’t want to be called technologists. So there must be a balance between public perception and the worth an engineer feels as a professional.
RA: The person who comes to fix our boiler is called an engineer and I think that’s a major problem. Children don’t understand what engineers do and what our profession is about. We need to get away from the man in the boiler suit and showcase role models, say fashionable women like ourselves can be engineers.
DB: School children aspire to make a difference. We need to find role models that everyone can relate to at all stages of their careers. These should be men as well as women — people who are great at bringing the excitement of engineering to life.
RA: The more the merrier. We need lots of different examples from different backgrounds - someone who has a physics degree, someone who is an electrical engineering apprentice. It proves there are so many different ways of getting into engineering.
MR: Access to the profession is extremely good, compared to how you become a lawyer or an airline pilot. Access and progression is one of the joys of being an engineer.
DB: Statistics show that there are now more women coming into engineering — 18 per cent of the Institution of Civil Engineers’ graduate members are female. But we still lose many in their thirties. We must focus on sustaining people in their careers, not just what people study at school.
LA: The diversity of engineering is not really understood for example automotive is very different to aerospace and it is important that people realise just how many STEM career opportunities there are, improving overall awareness of engineering as a valued career.
HK: Yes, we should definitely think about rebranding engineering. We have some of the world’s best
engineers here in the UK working in a range of industries such as Automotive, Aerospace and Infrastructure, to name a few, but we should do a better job of promoting them and our successes.
VB: Someone said there should not be a “pink door” into engineering. What problems do you find within the profession?
DB: We need to bring the art of the possible to life by having more women giving key note talks, being recruited and developed into leading roles, but we must only do this on the basis of “the best person for the role” and create the conditions for success.
LA: Some people underestimate your abilities as a female engineer because they think that you only got in because you are female, therefore it is important to ensure that that both males and females enter the profession on even criteria, and that we ensure that females have the right skills to compete with them, rather than create special entry routes.
Today in Fluor there are more women in senior positions than at any other time during its history in the UK so there are signs that the status quo is changing. Our young women go to industry events, schools and universities as role models as we have found that this is one of the most effective ways of changing young people’s perceptions of what is a professional engineer. I think that there should be an open door into engineering and the wider the better.