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What Women Want: Engineering's Hidden Human Side?

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Why are we still struggling to attract females into the engineering professions?

The Engineering UK 2013 Report shows that UK engineering and manufacturing is very much alive and well. It ranks ninth in global output, makes up almost half (46%) of UK exports, employs 2.5 million people, and accounts for 72% of UK business R&D. Numbers of successful applicants into industry from UK engineering and technology students also increased by 21.5% in 2010/11. However, only 10.8% of these applicants were women.

The 2012 Skills Survey by the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET) reveals a much bleaker outlook for female engineers nationwide. It highlights that, of the 2012 engineering workforce, just 6% were female, a figure that has not increased since 2008. The proportion of women working as technicians is also a troublingly low 4% (a 1% increase from the previous year, though down from 5% from the start of the recession).

I am not one to put faith in gender stereotypes, but with careers such as nursing, biological research and social work drawing a much higher proportion of females, I am lead to question whether the perception of engineering as a "heavy" industry, almost sterile of human interaction is putting women off.

It almost put me off. It is hard to make a decision on what you want to do for the rest of your life when you're in your late teens. I certainly did not have a clue - I just knew one thing:

I am a humanitarian; I wanted to help people and make a difference.

There is clear scope for engineering with a social and very much human dimension, but the current popular perception of an industry characterised by race cars and heavy construction keeps this in the background. This connection is further muddled by common use of the word "engineer" by the general public to refer to someone, say, who comes round to fix the dishwasher when it breaks down.

The all-girl sixth form I attended certainly was not a source for encouragement. I excelled in maths and sciences, but worryingly, engineering was not even suggested. My strong academics meant I was pushed by both school and my parents towards medicine - which made me not want to study medicine. Admittedly, a poor reason, but such was the nature of my teenage years. Wanting to investigate the idea of engineering further, I found the only advice and support was a bookshelf full of standard prospectuses and career description books. Thankfully universities provided opportunities to attend "Engineering Experience" courses to find out more.

The truth was, medicine seemed to fulfil the requirements of the career I was looking for; it was academically challenging, well-respected with good job prospects and, in my case, fulfilled that side of me that wanted to help people and make a direct difference in their lives. It is a shame that more people are not aware that a career in engineering can also tick all of these boxes.

I was lucky to have some good role models around me. My uncle is a retired engineer and university professor who spent much of his life working on jet engines for Rolls Royce. He is someone I had a lot of admiration and respect for. A friend of mine in the middle of a Mechanical Engineering degree at Swansea gave me a current student's perspective on what studying engineering would actually be like.

However, it was my father's career that showed me the direct link between engineering, humanitarian development and an international career. He studied Civil Engineering and became a water and wastewater engineer, working in state and private sectors in developed and developing contexts across the globe in Singapore, Sri Lanka, Canada and the UK.

As a young child, the idea of wastewater and sewage treatment seemed pretty unpleasant; "My Dad works in the treatment of toilet water" wasn't exactly something you told other kids with pride. It was only once I was older that I realised the direct impacts such a career could have. The World Health Organisation (WHO) reports (GLAAS 2012) that around 1.1 billion people globally don't have access to improved water supply sources and 2.4 billion people don't have access to any type of improved sanitation facility. Every year, about 2 million people die from diarrhoeal diseases; most of them are children less than 5 years of age.

I realised that I could also have a profound impact through engineering in addressing the wider issues that, left unattended, result in the need for medical treatment. There is scope for a wider reaching impact to thousands in preventing, rather than treating disease, through basic infrastructure.

This led me to study General Engineering, later specialising in Civil, Structural and Environmental Engineering. I have found that even in my few short years in industry, I have been able to apply my engineering skills to projects that directly contribute towards the development of society, both in the UK and overseas.

One example was my university research on micro-hydroelectric power schemes in remote mountainous regions of Cajamarca, Peru, which enabled me to contribute towards technology to address the lack of electricity access which severely restricts economic development. Electricity could provide power for domestic lighting and cooking needs; for refrigeration for vaccine storage; for school classes; and for women's groups to meet in the evening. It could be used directly for income-generating activities such as agricultural processes or light industry. With the NGO Practical Action, I worked directly with local people to better understand the environmental situation and the context of their needs in order to provide a solution that would directly improve their quality of life.

The engineering industry itself would surely benefit from more individuals concerned with this "people side". It is this understanding of people's needs, that results in the creation, not just of technology, but of appropriate technology. Engineers are well known for being intelligent, logical thinkers, though not always for being good communicators, or interested in the "softer" sociological side of the application of their developments. This results in solutions that are technically interesting, but not always fit for purpose.

We need to reach not only young people, but also their parents and teachers to show them what engineering means in the 21st century, and the wide scope of international possibilities available. And if females are discounting engineering as a 'cold and calculated' industry, with a chilly, technical exterior, we need to make them aware that it does in fact have a warm and humanitarian core too.