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Ways to forge a fascinating career in engineering

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Elizabeth Donnelly

CEO, Women’s Engineering Society

Engineering offers a range of opportunities across a vast array of sectors. More women are needed in these roles so that their talents can help build a more sustainable world.

At the last count, there were 6.1 million engineering jobs in the UK — but only 12.3% of the people in those jobs were female.

It’s high time that this depressing statistic improved, says Elizabeth Donnelly, CEO of the Women’s Engineering Society (WES), a charity and a professional network of women engineers.

Part of the problem is that engineering is usually associated with the tired stereotype of oily rags, wrenches and hard hats. Yet it’s a subject that offers myriad opportunities across a range of industries, insists Donnelly.

“Engineers can be found in every sector, from architecture and biomedicine to IT and sportswear development,” she says. “Engineering is everywhere. You name it, and it probably has a form of engineering behind it.”

Female engineers needed to help deliver a more sustainable future

The truth is that women’s talents are needed now more than ever, particularly if the United Nation’s member states are to achieve the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) they’ve identified for a better, more sustainable world.

These include providing clean water and sanitation for all; funding projects that provide basic infrastructure; and creating sustainable cities and communities.

Delivering these goals by 2030 is going to require top-flight engineering skills from both men and women, notes Donnelly.

“Engineers are innovative problem-solvers,” she says. “They’re the ones devising solutions to the challenges the world is facing, be it climate change or the COVID-19 pandemic.”

At the last count, there were 6.1 million engineering jobs in the UK — but only 12.3% of the people in those jobs were female.

A recent article from the World Economic Forum points out that “building a more sustainable world will require more women engineers” — a sentiment that Donnelly wholeheartedly agrees with. After all, it makes no sense to exclude half of the available talent pool because of their gender.

“Women bring a different perspective to any situation,” she says. “I heard one example recently of a tool-setting machine that took all day to reset because it was so heavy. So, a group of female engineers got together and developed a system that allowed the machine to be reset in 90 minutes without any heavy lifting. They came at the problem from a different direction.

“More women are needed in engineering because the joy of a balanced team is that it offers both perspectives and more co-operative working.”

The available pathways into engineering careers are changing

Donnelly hopes that more visible female role models will explode gender stereotypes and demonstrate to young women that engineering is a rewarding career option.

She points to high achieving women such as Natalie Desty, a maritime engineer; Jessica Noble, a jewellery designer; and Abbie Hutty, a spacecraft structures engineer.

All have different stories about how they found their way into their respective industries.

“Generally, the route into engineering has been via university with a general engineering or a speciality engineering subject, and then a specialist post-grad,” says Donnelly. But that’s changing.

“What we’re finding now, particularly with the government’s Apprenticeship Levy, is that more young people are joining organisations as apprentices and then doing degrees as part of their apprenticeships. That means they’re earning so won’t end up in debt, and they get hands-on experience, which companies like.”

Donnelly would advise any young woman to seriously consider an engineering career, whatever pathway they take.

“I’d tell them to go for it,” she says. “The industry is still hiring and can offer salaries of around £50,000 – £60,000. That’s something you don’t see in many other professions, so it’s incredibly lucrative. Plus, because you’re continually solving different problems, every day is different.”

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