Positive images key to raising number of women engineers

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Attempting to attract girls into engineering careers does not mean making pink tool kits or explaining the engineering required to make a cupcake.

Pressure to develop skilled new engineers and technicians would be eased if more girls and young women took STEM subjects at school and went on to pursue technical careers. UKESF scholar Emma Curati-Alasonatti reflects on her experiences as an engineer.

I met an engineer once who said that the best thing about being a woman in an engineering environment was that she never had to queue for the toilets. I rather like that response. It’s a silly answer to a silly question: “What’s it like being a female engineer?”

Women Engineers - Emma Curati-Alasonatti, final-year UKESF scholar at the University of Southampton, sponsored by ARM.
Emma Curati-Alasonatti, final-year UKESF scholar at the University of Southampton, sponsored by ARM.

The textbook response is, of course: a) “I’ve never been a ‘male engineer’ so I can’t provide a balanced comparison”, and b) “You would never ask a ‘male engineer’ the opposing question”.

It makes no difference

The best thing about being an engineer is the same, regardless of gender: the problem solving, the creativity, that feeling you get when you see an idea that existed only in your mind, however long ago, as a tangible entity that functions exactly as you designed it.

I recognise I come at this from a position of some privilege, as I spent 13 years at a private girls’ school in Hertfordshire, where the only consideration required for your desired future career was whether you could acquire the necessary skills.

My parents are very supportive and waste no time in telling everyone how their daughter studies electronic engineering. My grandfather worked with aircraft and automotive engines and my great-grandfather was a mechanical engineer, so having an engineer in the family is nothing new.

Engineering’s image

This is not the case for so many young people of any gender. Engineering is still viewed as getting your hands dirty fixing cars or men on building sites in hard hats, something a quick Google image search of the word ‘engineer’ will support.

It is not seen as being female friendly, and yet I don’t believe my gender has ever negatively impacted on my engineering career. On the contrary, where I do have a problem is when my gender has caused me to be on the receiving end of preferential treatment, such as being invited to events where I get the feeling that the fact that I am a woman is a key factor to my attendance.

I have had several conversations that have hinged on the assumption that I will be successful in my career due to my gender. There is a view that companies are more likely to hire women engineers to avoid being accused of discrimination. But of course this positive discrimination is still discrimination.

Role models

It is interesting to note that at a primary school where I volunteer to teach coding, the split across the class has always been fairly even between boys and girls. However, I have met many young women who were in very small minorities in their further maths A-level class and therefore felt under unnecessary pressure to outshine their male counterparts.

This anecdotal evidence would tend to suggest that the issues around stereotyping creep into girls’ consciousness as they grow older. Some efforts to counteract this stereotyping are made with the best intentions, but are rather poorly executed. Attempting to attract girls into engineering careers does not mean making pink tool kits or explaining the engineering required to make a cupcake! Engineering does not need ‘dumbing down’ to become attractive to girls.

What is required is inspiring role models who provide a clear vision of their potential future and better awareness of the entirety of engineering in the mainstream media, such as the recent television programme The Big Life Fix on BBC2.

It featured a team comprising four men and three women from various engineering disciplines, coming up with solutions to a variety of problems, none of which involved what most people would understand as traditional heavy industry engineering. The fixes included, among other things, writing apps, 3D printing, material science and electronics.

We need to expose girls to these positive images when they are young, to break the cycle of the existing state of affairs so that one day I can look forward to having to queue for the toilet!

UKESF

The UK Electronics Skills Foundation is the country’s only education charity solely promoting electronics. Its aim is to encourage more young people to study electronics and to pursue careers in the sector.

For further information, visit: www.ukesf.org