UK: Women on their metal. (2 of 4)

UK: Women on their metal. (2 of 4) - This is a position the Women's Engineering Society (WES) would also like to see. Founded in 1919 in the wake of World War I, WES aims to promote the study and practice of engineering among women. As such, says preside

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

This is a position the Women's Engineering Society (WES) would also like to see. Founded in 1919 in the wake of World War I, WES aims to promote the study and practice of engineering among women. As such, says president Dorothy Hatfield, "it's the sort of organisation that would like to do away with the need for itself".

Apart from representing the needs of women engineers to official bodies, the society acts as a professional network. "There is a requirement for a network," says Hatfield. "Women engineers still feel isolated and need to talk to other women."

WES also hopes to encourage younger women by providing them with role models, something which Carpenter feels, from her own experience, is particularly important. "When I was a girl I wanted a career, not just a job, but I couldn't see how it was possible to have a family and a career. So I had decided not to have children." The turning point came when Carpenter attended a lecture by Dame Kathleen Lonsdale, at that time already in her 70s. At the end of the lecture, recalls Carpenter, Lonsdale said: "'My greatest joy now is my grandchildren.' It changed my whole outlook. I realised that if she could do it so could I."

Membership of WES, despite its unexpectedly long history, is still only 700. Partly this is because a significant proportion of potential members are wary of setting themselves apart from their male colleagues. "I wouldn't join on principle," says Christine Smith, who owns and runs Medical Technology Partnership, a consultancy based in Tunbridge Wells, specialising in equipment for handling medical gases and medical safety standards in general.

Smith is one who sees few disadvantages for professional women and even less need to dwell upon them. Indeed, like many others, she sees positive advantages in being a woman in a man's world. Chief among these is being high profile: there are still so few women engineers about that those who are there tend to get noticed. And since most of the women who go into engineering have done so against considerable odds, they are generally both talented and dedicated. As Kate Lovett puts it: "You're not just another bright, young graduate; you're the one with the skirt on."

Conversely, of course, it also means that negative qualities are quickly registered. Lovett again: "It only takes one or two dolly birds or feminist haridans to mess it all up."

This sentiment is echoed by Carpenter at Brown and Root Vickers. She spent three years as a technical sales representative, selling welding equipment. But it was a job which very nearly passed her by. "The company had a policy of not employing women because there were people who used to use dolly bird types instead of technical reps." Fortunately for Carpenter, her application was so strong that the personnel manager decided to pursue it anyway. He cut the name off the top of the form and showed it to the technical director to get his opinion. The latter immediately responded with "Looks great, let's employ him", and stuck by his words even on discovering that the applicant was a woman.

That was nearly 20 years ago. In the meantime women have entered engineering in greater numbers. But despite the fact that so many women engineers play down gender issues, most accept that prejudice has not disappeared. At the bottom end of the scale, wolf whistles and comments from the factory floor are taken so much for granted that they are barely perceived as a form of prejudice. They are simply an occupational hazard that women learn to ignore, or counter with a sense of humour. As for more serious prejudice in the office, "It's less blatant than it used to be, but there are still MCPs about" is a typical comment.

"Mine's white, no sugar, love," is the initial reaction on seeing a woman, according to Lovett - an experience borne out by numerous others who find that men really show their mettle when it comes to making the tea. "Often there's nothing malicious about it," says Philippa Le Marquand, public relations manager of the EITB. And often it is the (female) tea lady who will plonk the tea tray in front of the only other woman in the room, even if she happens to be chairing a meeting.

Another common irritation is decisions being taken in the gents. "I always say if I could redesign this building I would put in unisex loos with all cubicles," says one woman, only half joking. Indeed, the formal and informal networks that men operate in are a problem for all professional women, not just engineers. With engineering there is perhaps the additional factor that manufacturing industry tends to be very traditional in culture. Companies with career breaks, for example, are few and far between - an issue of particular concern to women like Carpenter, who took out eight years to raise a family and "looked upon motherhood as a project".

Carpenter herself was helped to go back by the Women in Technology group at Loughborough University which was developing a project to encourage women returners and found her in their records of female engineers. She now believes strongly in long periods of sabbatical leave as a matter of right for both men and women, followed by structured returning programmes.

Such initiatives are sorely needed if the few women who do qualify as engineers are to be encouraged to work in industry. If not it will be many years before engineering catches up with other professions in improving its recruitment record.

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