I have always been of the view that the huge push for gender diversity we see so frequently in engineering firms is condescending and undermining to women. I don’t need a support network when I see myself as equal. I don’t need motivational sessions from ‘empowered women’ when I see no difference between the ‘empowered women’ and the more competent of my male colleagues around me.
Strong and weak people come in both genders, and by categorising ourselves as empowered, we succumb to the stale stereotype that women are weaker than men, and we degrade ourselves whilst complaining that it is the men that are degrading us. In my relatively short experience as an engineer, I have received nothing but respect from my male counterparts; the only sexism I have encountered was from another female engineer who, for some reason, did not like having another woman in the office.
I felt patronised when colleagues asked how I thought they could attract more women to the firm. There isn’t an abundance of women with engineering degrees, where did they think they were going to attract them from?! Engineering was simply more for the male‐minded amongst us.
Recently however, whilst working on an international project with a global workforce, I specifically noticed one very alien concept: the Spanish engineers were an equal male‐female balance. In fact, on researching the figures, I discovered that the UK has the lowest percentage of female engineers in the whole of Europe. Whilst I still disagree with the use of the word empowerment, I was forced to reconsider one thing; perhaps engineering isn’t for the male‐minded, perhaps there is no such thing, perhaps we are simply brain‐washed by British society into thinking women shouldn’t be engineers.
The Joint Council for Qualifications statistics shows girls out‐performing boys in STEM subjects at GCSE, yet those choosing engineering in the UK are 90% male on average. Why are so many girls in Britain steering clear of the industry, despite early high achievement?
Firstly, I asked myself why I became an engineer in this climate. Truth be told, I never wanted to be an Engineer; I fell in to it through a fortunate choice of university degree. I was a high flyer at school, I excelled at maths, science and art; and I dreamt about being an architect. The idea of being an engineer never competed. I was drawn to architecture; its prestige, its glamour, and its status. We see architecture portrayed in TV and film as a high‐flying career choice; do we ever see engineering portrayed like that?
The main response when I told people I wanted to be an architect was ‘oh, seven years of studying, I’m impressed’. I wanted that; the challenge, the pride in the achievement of it, and the glamour of the exclusive Royal Institute of British Architects. In reality, it’s a three year bachelor’s degree followed by four years of studying while you work. Engineering is more often than not a four year master’s degree and five years of on‐the‐job training.
It should hold glamour from the exclusive engineering institutions, and even more prestige from achievement. Instead, I turned my nose up at engineering; it wasn’t prestigious enough for my academic history, I didn’t want to spend my career dressed in overalls working in tunnels, I wasn’t captured by the concept perpetrated by British society.
Secondly, I asked a Spanish colleague how engineering is perceived in Spain. His main point was that the title ‘Engineer’ is protected; you cannot call yourself an engineer without going to university to achieve that status. There is much support for protection of the title in the UK, though many dismiss the notion that it would bring about a much needed change in the gender balance. He added that engineers are respected because the university process is tough. There is no additional chartership process in Spain; you come out of university as a fully‐fledged engineer, having completed six solid years of study. In Spain, to be an engineer is on a par with being a doctor or an architect; it is a career for the high‐flyer.
The parallels here are clear. In the UK, we lack a quantity of female engineers. In Spain, they do not. My reasons for avoiding the industry, though perfectly suited to it, were because I was looking for something non‐existent in the British perception of engineering, the same things that are actually fundamental to the Spanish perception.
Despite our lack of the protection that the Spanish enjoy, why can’t engineering offer the same promise in the UK? It will be more difficult with the ‘BT engineer’ and the ‘dishwasher engineer’ distracting from the rebranding, but it isn’t impossible. Why can’t engineering be seen as glamourous, exciting and exclusive without prejudice?
In a society that sets so much score by status, why are we not giving it one? How many girls (and more boys!) are taking a different a path because they don’t truly know what a career in engineering can offer them? STEM outreach should not be limited to showing school children what engineers do day to day, but should extend to showing society that we’re achievers, we’re smart, and our work is challenging, prestigious and professionally recognised. And why can’t we see this portrayed through TV and film?
Engineering isn’t ‘masculine’, nor is it dirty work. Provide engineering with the status is deserves and an influx in women will follow, and what’s more, it will come naturally, and without undermining the women who already work in the sector.