Engineering is historically seen as a male-dominated sector and the UK press has been full of articles in recent months about how the UK should be embarrassed by its lack of female engineers, triggered in part by Labour leader Ed Miliband's recent speech on the topic. But lamenting the past will not solve engineering's image problem.
Yes, the UK has the lowest rate of female engineers in Europe. We have some catching up to do, but catch up we can, and more. I believe now is a better time than ever for female engineers.
Engineering is a great and rewarding career for women. I have never experienced discrimination during my career, and in fact, many of my most successful colleagues are women. This year, two of the biggest UK engineering bodies appointed female leaders. Dame Ann Dowling DBE FREng FRS, a world authority on combustion and acoustics, was elected President of the Royal Academy of Engineering in September, and Naomi Climer FREng, a media and entertainment technology engineer, is due to take the helm as President of the IET next October.
The diversification and democratisation of technology has broadened the scope that an engineering career can offer, as shown in the recent Universe of Engineering report, which I chaired. Engineering encompasses everything from infrastructure and renewable energy to biotechnology, medical devices and smart fabrics. There are more options than ever before, and many exciting fields that should attract as many women as men.
Dame Sue Ion (R) speaks to Health and Safety Laboratory project manager looking at the Hydrogen Test Rig on site Credit: Health and Safety Laboratory (HSL)
I was recently appointed chair of judges for the Royal Academy of Engineering MacRobert Award. This is the UK's longest running and most prestigious engineering award, recognising innovative engineering projects that demonstrate tangible societal benefit. My fellow judges and I have had the chance to see some amazing projects pioneered by UK engineers, from bionic hands and human motion capture technology to help surgeons to remote access software and organic LEDs for cheaper TV displays.
Nationwide campaigns like Engineering for Growth have gone a long way towards communicating the value engineering contributes to the economy and society. Programmes such as WISE, which helps organisations to inspire women and girls to pursue STEM subjects and careers, are hoping to push the presence of female employees from 13% to 30% by 2020 by emphasising the economic benefit of boosting the talent pool. These programmes rely on female engineers who are already successful in their careers taking a leading role. I'd like to see more women in my profession stepping up and celebrating their work, whether by applying for high-profile awards like the MacRobert award, or by getting involved in outreach activities that communicate the joys of our profession to the next generation.
It isn't hard to make it sound appealing. The high demand for our skills means that there are plenty of jobs available, and engineering is a secure and well-paid job. In fact, a recent report found that engineers are second only to medics in securing full-time jobs and earning good salaries.
Most important perhaps is that, much like the Institution for Civil Engineers' take on Pharrell Williams' video, the same report found that the vast majority (80%) of female engineers are happy in their job and almost all (93%) find it rewarding. Ultimately, Engineering is fun. If it wasn't, I wouldn't have stuck with it so long!
It's clear that the reason for the lack of women lies not with the realities of an engineering career, but rather with the way the career is perceived. Fortunately, that's something we can change.
Engineering could look to medicine for some inspiration. Medicine has a surplus of applicants and around 60% of medical students are now women. The disciplines have much in common - you need excellent academic qualifications and practical experience for both but, crucially, medicine is overwhelmingly perceived to be a career about helping people and engineering is less so.
However, there is an argument that engineering saves more lives than doctors. Whilst it may be less of a 'front line' role, you can't argue with the fact that it is engineers who enable the provision of clean water and of power, engineers who are responsible for the transport systems that move our food and get us to work, and engineers who are behind many of the medical technology developments of the last 100 years.
Current efforts to rebrand engineering can only help to draw in more women to such a rewarding and exciting career. I can't wait to see the new innovations and creations an increasingly diverse engineering workforce will deliver in the future for the benefit of society.