UK: Women on their metal. (1 of 4)

UK: Women on their metal. (1 of 4) - Engineering is still a world where men are men and women are secretaries. But the situation is constantly improving and gender becoming less of an issue. Hashi Syedain talks to women who have built successful careers

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Engineering is still a world where men are men and women are secretaries. But the situation is constantly improving and gender becoming less of an issue. Hashi Syedain talks to women who have built successful careers in engineering.

What is it about engineering? Of all the professions, it still has by far the worst record for recruiting women. While the likes of medicine, law and accountancy have succeeded in attracting equal or near equal numbers from both sexes, engineering lags far behind. Nationally only 12% of students entering university in engineering disciplines are women. The number actually working in the profession is even bleaker, running at a paltry 2.7%.

Yet those women who do take the plunge are keen to emphasise how quickly they are snapped up by industry. "I don't think there is any difficulty getting in," says Dorothy Hatfield, product pricing manager at Rediffusion Simulation and president of the Women's Engineering Society. Once there, there may be additional obstacles, but the consensus among most female engineers is that these are both surmountable and dwindling.

In fact many of the recruitment problems are common to both men and women. British engineers as a whole are constantly lamenting the low esteem in which their profession is held and the corresponding salaries offered in industry.

The conventions of the English language have not helped either. The word "engineer" is gaily used of the bloke who fixes your television or washing machine as well as for a highly qualified professional. "It's like saying 'I'll get an architect to look at my drains' when you need a builder," observes Jackie Carpenter, a project engineer with Brown and Root Vickers in Eastleigh, Hampshire.

There are also relatively few engineers who reach board level. It is a profession where you quickly reach a ceiling, often, reckons Kate Lovett (see part 3), until recently an engineer at Jaguar, because engineers are not articulate or gifted in the boardroom intrigues essential to success.

On top of this, engineering's reputation for being a dirty or heavy duty profession has also served to deter entrants, and women in particular. But modern technology means that there is very little physical work involved. Furthermore, Carpenter points out: "Women are expected to change nappies, which means getting dirty, or go into nursing and lift people in and out of beds." She, like many others, therefore, is firmly convinced that it is popular prejudice that keeps girls away from doing engineering.

The conditioning starts with the toys given to children and continues all the way through school. Many engineers, for example, men and women, talk of childhoods spent making things. Carpenter herself recalls stealing Meccano bits from her two brothers to supplement her own set and make ever bigger and better structures. "But," she says, if her parents had been less enlightened "my creative talents could just as well have been directed towards dressmaking or cooking." She, like many others, believes not in positive discrimination to recruit girls but in broadening the horizons of young women and positively encouraging them to look at untraditional careers.

Take Fiona MacFarlane, for example, a chemical engineer, working as plant superintendent at BP Chemicals in Grangemouth. She first began to consider the profession after going to a talk on careers in engineering that had been advertised in school "for all boys doing maths and physics". "I felt a sense of indignation," she recalls. "I was doing maths and physics and I thought it sounded interesting."

To combat just this kind of prejudice, a number of national initiatives have been set up to encourage girls to broaden their options. Chief among these are the Women into Science and Engineering campaign (Wise for short) and the Insight programmes. These are run by the Engineering Industry Training Board (soon to become the Engineering Training Authority) and the Engineering Council. One of the cornerstones of Wise is a number of science and technology buses, double deckers, kitted out with modern equipment, which tour around secondary schools and give girls a chance to learn and experiment with technology in an environment unthreatened by boys. Insight, on the other hand, is for older girls thinking of careers in engineering. They spend a week at a university, learning about the subject on a special course, tutored entirely by women engineers.

"There's still out there, in schools and with the parents, the idea that it's an odd thing for a girl to be an engineer. And that's important when you're 17. With Insight they see that the others are all normal - they're not all butch girls or anything," explains Pennant Jones of the EITB. BP's MacFarlane, now an Insight tutor herself, is convinced that the scheme has had an impact on her own career. For years in secondary school she had wanted to be a dietician because she enjoyed sciences and liked food. "If it weren't for Insight, I would now be a dietician," she reckons.

Initiatives like these have seen the percentage of girls in the engineering intake at universities rise from 3 to 4% in the 1970s to the 12% that it is today. Jones would like to see this rise to about a fifth. "The campaigns are not about equal numbers as men. That would be an absurd target. Twenty per cent is a substantial minority, enough for it not to be a strange thing. From there growth would be self-sustaining."

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