Perceptions Of Women In Engineering Is No Joke

23/06/2017 18:54
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Three engineers visit a school to talk about their careers: two men and a woman. One is a burly Yorkshireman, the other is a tall Southerner and the third is a short, blonde woman from the Midlands.

They explain they all work for the same engineering company, and as a warm-up exercise ask the children what areas they thought they worked in.

The Yorkshireman steps forward and the kids correctly screamed "submarines!"

The Southerner then challenged the students to guess what business unit he worked in - they were a little more unsure but finally they ventured a guess that he built aeroplanes. And they were right.

Finally, the small, blonde woman steps forward, reminding the kids that given she work in the same industry as the two men before.

Without hesitation, they enthusiastically and confidently shouted: "A dancer!"

If you are thinking that the punchline is a little weak, it might be because this isn't a joke. This very scenario happened to me when visiting a primary school to talk about careers in engineering with two of my male colleagues.

While dancing is a fantastic career in its own right, it's safe to assume that most multi-national engineering companies don't tend to have an official Flamenco department.

However, this reaction got me thinking about how at such a young age these children had arrived at the conclusion that men were engineers and women were not. Put simply: they perceived that there were careers suitable for men and careers suitable for women.

Perhaps I've had a slightly unusual experience when it came to perceptions of women in STEM (Science, technology, engineering and maths): I had always enjoyed science, my mum was a maths teacher, all my friends at university had gone into scientific careers. Throughout my life I had been surrounded by women who loved STEM subjects and had never felt that it "wasn't for them".

Searching for answers, I did what any self-respecting engineer with a Physics degree would do: I Googled it.

When I typed in "engineers", by and large, I was greeted by a sea of images of men wearing yellow hard hats. It occurred to me that for a 14-year-old girl, deciding on GCSE subjects and Googling what careers paths might be open to her, these images may be her first introduction to engineering. Not exactly an inviting first impression for a young woman.

It seems appropriate on Women in Engineering Day to ask how can we create a welcoming space to encourage women into STEM careers?

I decided there were three options. First off - you could do nothing in the hope that the gender gap in engineering will eventually even out in a few decades. A slow approach to making a change, with no guaranteed results.

Then there is positive discrimination or having a quota of women that companies must employ. With all credit to this option, you would get immediate results. However, I'm not sure how successful this strategy would be in the long term. Imagine feeling like you only got your job because of a diversity programme. How would this affect your confidence in your role? Would male colleagues think less of you because you had a helping hand up the ladder? Let's be realistic: some might.

The third option is something I am passionate about - creating positive role models of women working in STEM careers. I've been lucky to work with some fantastic teams of both men and women during my career so far - and I'm passionate about talking about my experiences and hopefully challenging some of the biases (unconscious or otherwise) that exist out there in the public consciousness.

Certain engineering companies (like my employer) and the likes of the RAF and Royal Navy look to outreach to school children from a young age to try and challenge those opinions before they can be formed. I work as a STEM Ambassador - visiting local schools to show girls and boys first-hand what a career in engineering really looks like.

From a business perspective, the benefits of this are twofold. If you have a diverse workplace, you can pull upon a wealth of experiences and backgrounds, and ultimately create better products for your customers.

Additionally, in the UK there is a shortfall of engineers. Engineering UK predicts that between 2012 and 2022 there will be demand for 1.82 million engineers, and we need more visible examples of female engineer role models to inspire both genders to consider this fascinating and rewarding career path as an option.

If we want to keep the industry thriving for years to come - we need to make a concerted effort to inspire more women into engineering.