The co-inventor of the first computer and the Bletchley Park codebreakers are still inspiring women to become engineers. But how are women in the field recognised today?
That was how our June roundtable discussion for National Women in Engineering Day began. And it looks as though the future holds some surprises, as well as challenges.
High achievers in the field
There were female representatives from all spheres of engineering at the event: an apt reminder of the breadth of roles that women already occupy in the industry.
On the speaking panel were Dr Arti Agrawal, a lecturer at City University who specialises in optical fibres; Dawn Bonfield, president of the Women’s Engineering Society (WES) and materials engineer; Nadia Abbas, British Gas engineer and success coach; and Claire Miles, managing director of British Gas Homecare.
Still a small proportion
Yet, with only 6% of positions in Engineering currently held by women, there is undoubtedly a long way to go in terms of reforming the industry and encouraging future generations of girls to enter.
At British Gas (including British Gas Business), only 4% of applicants to the 2014 technical and engineering apprenticeship schemes were women.
Hint for the future
National Women in Engineering Day (#NWED), organised by the WES, aims to start the revolution by celebrating and promoting the achievements of female engineers. And as last night’s panel found, there was plenty to celebrate. But not just in terms of past and present achievers.
Technological advancements are changing the position of the engineer, with some positive consequences for women.
The evening opened with Chair, and editor-in-chief of Engineering & Technology magazine, Dickon Ross asking the panel to look to the past and pick their engineering heroines. Who are the women who inspired them to come into the field?
Among the answers were Ada Lovelace, an English mathematician who, in the late 19th century, helped to invent the first computer, and the codebreakers of Bletchley Park.
Naturally, talk of notable figures from the past lead to a discussion of why so few female engineers come to prominence today.
While the general consensus on the panel was that engineering was often an overlooked profession, Dr Agrawal did use the example of Hedy Lamarr to illustrate the particular difficulties that women face.
Lamarr, as well as being a 1940s film star, was also an electrical engineer who co-invented a technology that’s now essential to our digital commun ications.
‘She’s reported to have said of women “you just have to look pretty and stand still,”’ explained Dr Agrawal. ‘In many ways, women are still patronised today. We aren’t expected to understand engineering.’
With breaking the glass ceiling in mind, Claire Miles identified the resistance of male middle managers as a particular problem. ‘It’s something we work closely with our teams at British Gas on,’ she explained ‘to ensure that talent is being nurtured.’
New technologies may suit women’s strengths
Finally, the discussion turned to the future.
‘In our particular world of engineering,’ explained Claire, ‘the future will see a move towards more green technologies, what we call “distributed” energies, with consumers generating their own energy at home through, say, solar panels.
‘And beyond that there is a move towards smart, connected homes, both of which will change the nature of our engineers’ work. In the smart home a boiler is likely to look more like a computer than a big steel tank, which will require engineers with new and different skillsets.’
‘This is the exciting part of engineering, especially for girls,’ added Dawn Bonfield. ‘The future for engineering is in fields like artificial intelligence, robotics, sustainable energy, food supply.
‘For these kinds of huge global challenges we’ll need engineers who aren’t just good at solving technical problems but who can communicate to the public and understand the ethics behind the problems, it’s the dawn of an age where EQ – emotional intelligence, the kind that girls often have in spadesful – is just as important as IQ.
‘And thanks to technology, the engineering of the future is unlikely to be based around heavy industry, steam trains or, like Claire said, boilers that look like big steel tanks.’