On 23rd June, National Women in Engineering Day will be celebrated worldwide for the third time, giving the industry a platform to celebrate current women engineers and to encourage other young women to consider a career in engineering.
According to the most recent statistics report by Women’s Engineering Society (WES)[i], only 9% of the UK’s engineering workforce is female.[ii] In fact, the UK currently has the lowest percentage of female engineering professionals in the whole of Europe – about 20% lower than countries such as Latvia, Bulgaria and Cyprus.[iii]
Further statistics reveal that only 20% of A Level physics students are girls, and this has not changed in the last 25 years.[iv] The amount of young women studying engineering and physics at university has remained virtually static since 2012[v], and only 15.8% of engineering and technology undergraduates are female.[vi]
Certainly, this is not due to a lack of ability. Ingrained societal and cultural norms act as a barrier for women entering into a field of work traditionally seen as “masculine.” As Naomi Climer, president of the Institution of Engineering & Technology (IET) puts it, “in France, the origins of engineer are in ‘ingenious’, while in English it is ‘engine’ and these subtleties have a symbolic impact.”[vii]
Moreover, a recent study[viii] into gender bias in the technology industry showed that women often outperformed men in some of the most male-dominated subjects, even though they represent the minority. The study also discovered that computer code written by a woman was more likely to be approved by peers than code written by a man, but only if it was not revealed that the code was written by a woman. It appears that the engineering industry’s existing prejudice has repercussions – whether conscious or not – in women’s ability to gain the same levels of recognition as men.
When women account for less than 10% of the engineering workforce, the only way forward is to push for change.
A number of educational and promotional initiatives have recently been developed to recruit and retain more women into the industry. The Institution of Engineering and Technology has joined forces with the Prospect trade union to recruit more women engineers[ix], and the Institute of Refrigeration (IoR) is launching a new network to promote Women in RACHP, to coincide with National Women in Engineering Day on June 23 – registration for the network is open at www.ior.org.uk/womeninRACHP.
In addition, the editor of the ACR Journal, Will Hawkins, made it part of his editorial objectives to celebrate women working in the industry with the introduction of the ‘Women in ACR’ feature.[x] This is especially significant because it could be said that there is a lack of celebrated female engineer role models for young girls to look up to, and the ACR Journal is helping to bring them forward.
The variety of creative and stimulating careers available to women in refrigeration and heating is vast, and our industry has begun taking more initiative to open its doors to women. By pressing on with this type of support for women to reach their full potential as engineers, we can hope to see a more diverse industry in the future.
Growing equality equals a growing industry
Gender inequality is not only a pressing moral and social issue, but also a critical economic challenge.
Although there is certain level of fulfilment when like-minded colleagues agree on a new idea, this comes at a high cost. Missing out on a diverse pool of thoughts and creative ideas affects innovation and profitability, as research by McKinsey & Co.[i] suggests: companies with a gender diverse workforce are likely to perform 15% better, as a diverse range of perspectives on issues can provide a gateway to a broader variety of solutions.
So, what else can we do to enlist a younger generation of female engineers who have the potential to shape and innovate our future?
As an ageing population of skilled workers contributes to the nationwide engineer shortfall, we should turn our focus to the generation of today to give rise to the engineers of tomorrow.
Perhaps we could learn from FemEng, a group of young female engineers from the University of Glasgow. FemEng was founded in 2013 by UoG’s Engineering Society President, Ellen Simmons. FemEng visit local schools in Glasgow to speak to girls about the importance of engineering and how anyone can do it – not just boys.
“There are lots of reasons why girls in particular aren’t studying engineering, but we believe those reasons are not because they’re incapable, we believe those reasons are because a lot of girls just don’t know what engineering entails,” says Simmons.
“A lot of girls are intimidated by the engineering environment as it’s full of men – it’s the idea that you’ll be in a minority, feeling as if you have to prove yourself more, feeling that, if you fail, people will notice more. It’s just little things like that that can make your career more stressful or your class not as fun.”
“This is why we are going around schools to speak to 12 to 15 year old girls – as this is when they must decide their future by making their subject choices – to encourage them with our success stories and how happy we are.”
FemEng seek to drive out the existing misconception that engineering only means manual labour on a construction site or shipyard, when in fact the field is so diverse that it can involve anything from designing innovative new technology to developing and testing aircraft. Engineering is very much a career focused degree, and statistics have shown that engineering students are second only to medics in securing full-time jobs and earning good salaries.
FemEng teams up with Rwanda
This year, FemEng is going international. Last week eight of the girls, including Ellen, travelled to Rwanda, where they will be living and working for three weeks in the country’s capital, Kigali, to deliver workshops for local primary and secondary school girls that will hopefully encourage the pupils to think of engineering as a realistic career option.
Rwanda is a country that stands out as having similar goals for workplace diversity. Women currently make up 64% of their parliament[i], and they are the second most active country in the UN’s HeForShe equality campaign, behind the United States. FemEng’s project even got the stamp of approval from Rwanda’s Minister of Education, who is “really excited” about their plans.
Speaking about FemEng’s plans for the project, Simmons says, “The country has very interesting gender dynamics. It’s very much a collaborative effort. We will be working with a team of eight female engineering and architecture students over there as well as an additional team of eight girls from different schools around Kigali, and we’re hoping they are going to be pioneers for when we leave.”
“However, this project isn’t intended to be one where we go all the way to Rwanda and then we come home and forget all about it, this is the inaugural year of what we’re planning on being a five year project at least.”
“At the same time, I don’t want to still be advocating for STEM diversity 10 years from now – because, really, the problem should have been fixed by then.”
A career in engineering? “I would do it for free”
Another girl participating in this pioneering project is Jess Níc Shuibhne, who has just completed her degree in Aeronautical Engineering at Glasgow. When asked what she would say to young girls to inspire them to take up engineering, Jess reflected on her own love of the craft: “I would do it for free.”
“Going on to study engineering at university really hammered home that I picked the right thing, as it is so unbelievably interesting. I could not have spent four years – or, actually, the rest of my life – having studied anything else.”
Jess went on to comment that the reason most of the girls in her class went on to do engineering was because ‘they had always been very determined to do it anyway.’
“One day, I would like it to come as just a natural career option for girls, as it has always done for boys.”
Supporting Women in Engineering
The girls’ project has won a lot of support from organisations eager to make ‘women in engineering’ a reality. Within a few months, the team has received sponsorship from Star Refrigeration, the Institute of Engineers and Shipbuilders in Scotland (IESIS), Incorporation of Hammermen of Glasgow, UoG Chancellor’s Fund, UoG School of Engineering, CH2M, and Western Ferries, as well as the donation of a 3D printer from University College Dublin.
If you would also like to contribute, visit FemEng’s GoFundMe page: www.gofundme.com/femengrwanda.
Last week the project reached a milestone when their funding target was achieved. As their costs have now been covered, any additional monies received will help to make the experience even better, for example they will be able to provide a meal for the Rwandan students attending the workshops.
Celebrating women inventors, how they’ve changed the world, and are inspiring the next generation.