The first female president of the Royal Aeronautical Society explains why women’s business networks must aim to disband.
“There is some real disquiet among women in industry about women-only events,” admits
Jenny Body OBE in the midst of escalating debate over the continued gender imbalance in British industry.
It’s a somewhat controversial statement for the first female president of the Royal Aeronautical Society, one of the founding members of the Women in Aerospace and Aviation Committee and keynote speaker at the first Everywoman Advanced Manufacturing and Engineering Academy to make.
But Ms Body qualifies her position, “It’s potentially detrimental to mark women out as a special case and I think the end goal of any female-only network must be to see itself disband.
“But that cannot be done until women in industry have access to the same naturally existing professional networks as men. Or until we have an equal balance of girls studying STEM subjects, starting apprenticeships and acting as industry role models. And we still have some way to go on that.”
In the meantime, says Body, the “slightly false” women forums, networks and workshops which aim to connect women with role models and promote the success of women in industrial jobs, must be fabricated.
Jenny Body became the first female president of the Royal Aeronautical Society in May this year.
TM asked her how she views this milestone.
“It’s strange, I am very much enjoying my tenure and I think it is going well,” she says modestly, “but at first I was reluctant to climb the milestone.
“I was asked to become president a couple of years before I accepted. I declined at first because, at the end of my professional career it seemed so extraordinary to me that I should still be the first woman to do something.”
Ms Body has prioritised the promotion of industry careers to women during her tenure as president, building on her success in helping establish the Women in Aerospace and Aviation Committee some seven years ago.
Is Ms Body now proud of her achievement in becoming the first female president of the significant industry body?
Not overtly so. “What I think will be far more important,” she says “is when we see the second and the third female presidents. This will suggest a steady state operation, not an extraordinary exception.”
“It’s important to give girls and young women the same leg up as men are instinctively able to search out,” she says.
But can’t women just go to male mentors for advice?
“They can,” Body accedes, “but it is not always the same. It’s not about getting ‘girly’ advice. I am not a ‘girly girl’ but I remember at the start of my career, when I was always the only woman in cohorts of fifty of a hundred training engineers, that I was occasionally desperate to talk to a woman about my experiences, concerns and ambitions.”
As rising apprenticeship numbers and the growing popularity of STEM subjects at A level suggest that industry is beginning to make progress on its acknowledged skills shortfalls, debate over the proportion of women choosing manufacturing careers is hotting up.
EEF and Cranfield University published their first FTSE 100 – Women in Manufacturing report in March this year and there has been a palpable increase in comment from manufacturing professionals, male and female alike, about the sector’s seemingly unshakably male profile at industry conferences, workshops and debate sessions.
This elevation of the ‘women in manufacturing issue’ it is not before time says Body.
“I actually don’t feel that the environment for young women entering manufacturing has changed much since I started my career,” she says.
“Women entering the profession today will still enter a workforce that is overwhelmingly male.”
Small signs of progress, like the increasing scarcity of “girly calendars” in offices and workshops, are to be welcomed says Body, but there remains a huge myth-busting challenge around the nature of manufacturing and engineering careers which is exaggerated in the case of women according to the ex-BAE Systems aerospace engineer.
“It is critical that we address this perception issue,” comments Body, who is an active advocate of STEM-based careers. “Until we do so, we will be ignoring fifty per cent of the talent pool which could potentially help us overcome our skills deficit in industry. This challenge is generally acknowledged, but the urgency with which we must respond is perhaps not entirely realised,” she sums up.
Attraction and retention
But while attracting women into manufacturing is the first battle to win, Body knows there is a potentially more complex set of issues to address with regards to retaining women and increasing female representation at senior management level in manufacturing.
As the Davies ‘Women on Boards’ report identified in 2011, there is a significant drain of female talent at middle management, largely due to the disappearance of talent when women choose to start families.”
This is an unnecessary loss according to Body who has strong views about the importance and value of ‘returners’ to business.
“We need to develop better support mechanisms for women throughout their careers, to help them develop,” she says. “I am not in favour of parachuting women into ‘softer’ senior positions like HR in order to achieve target ratios. That does not help the situation.
“There is a particular need to support women in their mid-careers –when they might be thinking about starting families.
Body says she recognises the concerns of SMEs who see recruiting more women as a risk to their business, due to developing over reliance on a resource which may be absent for an extended period of time.
However, she goes on to assert “I don’t really sympathise though because my own experience of having women work for me who have taken a mid-career break to go away and start a family, is that, when they come back, they are more valuable than ever before and bring quite unique skills sets to the teams they work in.”
This being the case, Body is adamant that manufacturing businesses should think more creatively about the way they utilise ‘returners’, both female and male.
She says that such individuals often have enhanced commitment, insight and usefulness and can offer several times the value of a new starter.
Body is clearly passionate about promoting the value of women to the manufacturing sector and to encouraging equality and ease of access to careers.
She is not unrealistic however, and admits that “women must make clear decisions about their work life balance. I would say this to any woman starting her career. You can’t necessarily have it all and you need to make a clear decision about where your priorities will ultimately lie.”
Hear more from Jenny Body at the first Everywoman Advanced Manufacturing and Engineering Academy at the Royal Academy of Engineering on November 14.
This one day set of workshops, debates and presentations will help clarify the imperative, and the mechanisms, for promoting engineering careers to young women as well as helping established female manufacturing professionals to strengthen their networks and develop their careers.
TM readers benefit from a 20% discount on the delegate rate. Quote TM20 when booking.
Find out more about the event here.