'The perception is still that engineering is geeky and a job for the boys' - Mamta Singhal

Too many employers disparage female engineers. But they should be celebrated as business heroes in the making.

by Mamta Singhal
Last Updated: 27 Apr 2016

Six months ago, I went to a job interview – an informal, ‘come-and-meet-the-company’ type event with other candidates. It started out with 45 minutes of spiel from the sales and marketing team, shouting about how they were meeting ‘their’ targets and selling ‘their’ great products, and ended with the company director (another sales and marketing guy) glorifying his team’s amazing work. With my long hair, manicured nails and pink heels, everyone assumed I was there for a marketing role. When I told them I was, in fact, planning on joining the European engineering team, I was met with surprise and scorn. ‘Oh, we didn’t realise you’re just an engineer.’ ‘You don’t look like a technician.’ ‘Do we need an engineer on our products?’

I didn’t consider the job. Not because of the salary. Not because of the location. But because the company’s attitude to engineering was awful. I knew I’d never be valued in the business.

Being an engineer still holds a negative stigma in this country and the profession is grossly misunderstood. Qualified professional engineers can drive out costs, develop holistic strategies, improve efficiency and develop amazing products, yet the perception is still that engineering is geeky and a job for the boys.

According to WISE (Women in Science and Engineering), the UK has the lowest percentage of female engineering professionals in Europe, at less than 10%, while Latvia, Bulgaria and Cyprus lead with nearly 30%. And the proportion of young women studying engineering and physics has remained virtually static since 2012. A study from recruitment website Reed.co.uk last year found that there are eight times as many men applying for engineering jobs as women in the UK. 

My family is from India, where engineers are revered; they’re up there with doctors and lawyers. My grandfather, and later my uncles, helped to rebuild India post-partition in the 40s, so I grew up thinking that engineering was an honourable profession. My father, a physicist, was always teaching me how things worked; he was full of random facts and he made science fun. That made me inquisitive; as a kid, I was always peering through binoculars and telescopes. I loved playing with Lego, K’NEX and model cars, and was fascinated with programmes like Tomorrow’s World and the film Big, where Tom Hanks’ character gets paid to play with toys and build cool new products. It was the early 90s and Sir James Dyson was just starting to appear in the news. I went on to do a product design engineering degree at Glasgow University/Glasgow School of Art. I had patents to my name but, when I started applying for jobs, businesses still didn’t take me seriously as they couldn’t see the connection between creativity and engineering. I had to do an MBA at Strathclyde Business School to get my foot in the door and prove that I was both technically and commercially savvy.

The IET (Institution of Engineering and Technology) is doing great things to try and encourage more women into the profession. As a judge on IET’s Young Woman Engineer of the Year and Innovation Awards, I’ve met girls who are developing sound systems for cars, building stadiums and constructing robots for space exploration. But why, as a nation, aren’t we making more noise about our engineering talent?

Do we need to be careful about gender stereotyping from a young age? Pink toys for girls, blue for boys. A trip to Toys R Us is depressing – there’s barely anything that’s gender neutral on the shelves. US firm GoldieBlox has come up with a truly clever set of toys, designed by Debbie Sterling, a Stanford engineering graduate. Bothered by how few women there were in her programme, she became obsessed with the notion of ‘disrupting the pink aisle with a toy that would introduce girls to the joy of engineering at a young age’. The toys are packaged in sequin-free yellow and were promoted through a hit viral video ad campaign showing girls getting bored with a princess show on TV and leaping up to create a giant Rube Goldberg machine out of toys. If our childhood influences affect our career choices (incidentally my sister also studied engineering) then we must get more stuff like this on the shelves.

Watch highlights from Inspiring Women Edinburgh on how we can improve gender balance in STEM

According to Engineering UK, we need to double the number of engineering graduates within the next 10 years to fulfil the skills gap. I regularly go into local secondary schools to talk to children about careers and try to inspire more people – particularly girls – to consider engineering, but we need more role models to explain what the profession entails. We have to show real engineers working on real projects, so that we break down the dull stereotype of a grubby bloke fixing broken appliances.

If we do manage to boost the number of engineering graduates in this country, let’s make sure those bright sparks land the right jobs. I see so many technical and new development roles going to marketing and arts grads instead of qualified engineers.

Geeky is cool and one day engineers will be the superstars in the business world. Just wait and see.

Mamta Singhal is a freelance business consultant and product design engineer, and has worked for companies including Dyson, Hasbro and Mars. 

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