'Hidden Figures' Highlights Unsung Female Engineers - But How Many More Are There?

17/02/2017 13:55

This Friday (17 February) marks the release of the Oscar nominated 20th Century Fox film Hidden Figures, which resurrects the true story of three truly inspirational women who worked for NASA in the 1960s - and helped blaze a trail for mathematicians and engineers of all races and genders to follow.

Largely unheard of and unrecognised for their huge contribution to America's space programme during the 1960s, Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Winston Jackson and Katherine Johnson, were three NASA engineers and mathematicians whose ground-breaking work was behind the US's first space missions - so it's fantastic that their stories are now going to be told.

And stories like these - that highlight amazing women in engineering - are so important. We need to celebrate female role models and showcase the brilliant world-changing work that they do.

However, not every hidden figure has had their story told. Women have been contributing to the advancement of science, engineering, technology and mathematics for hundreds of years. For example, the Bullet-proof material Kevlar, the first dishwasher, windscreen wipers, and the child-safe plug were all invented by women.

And yet how many people know this?

Another example of forgotten female engineers is the Waterloo Bridge. As one of London's most important bridges, this was built by women during the Second World War. However, this had been written out of the history books and it wasn't until 2015 that the women's contribution to building the bridge was officially acknowledged.

The difficulty in attracting women into engineering is down to a combination of things, including the image of engineers within the UK, careers advice girls are given in schools and the way that companies with engineering roles portray their brand and advertise their opportunities.

But I'd say the lack of female role models is a major problem for today's future engineers - currently only 9% of engineers in the UK are women.

I can personally say that engineering really is an enjoyable, stimulating and fulfilling career - it's diverse and exciting with the opportunity to do something life- or world-changing. But the lack of women in the sector is a huge problem.

As the first female president of the IET in its 145-year history, I spent my presidential year championing the urgent need to attract more girls and women into engineering. And the IET continues to stress the importance of attracting more girls and women to the engineering profession.

For example, next month the IET will launch its search for this year's Young Woman Engineer of the Year. The Awards, which have now been running for 40 years, are all about finding role models to get girls - and young people in general - excited and inspired about a career in engineering.

We must get more young girls excited about the possibilities of an engineering career - and Hidden Figures is an inspiring step in the right direction at showcasing engineering role models.