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Women in engineering: better by design?

Women in engineering: better by design?

9 May 2013 Written by By Celia Jarvis Marketing & Communications Executive, Design Council

You’re probably familiar with the great men of engineering, if I mentioned the name Thomas Edison I bet you could even list some of his achievements.  However, if I were to say Elsa Garmire, then I expect, like most people, you would draw a blank.

As it happens, Garmire’s feats in engineering are no less notable. She was responsible for developing semi-conductor lasers, which gave us the CD players and printers we use today and she continues to make notable advances in the sector of engineering, so why haven’t we heard of her?

China has an engineering workforce where women make up 33% of the total, in the UK it’s just 5%.

Liz Davis-Smith, Hethel Engineering

For a number of years, girls have out-performed boys within all subjects, including science, technology, engineering and maths. The most recent figures from Pearson, which manages the BTEC awards, report that 37% of girls gained a distinction at level one – compared with just 20% of boys. Clearly girls have all the skills they need for the profession and yet, when it comes to opting for a career in engineering, it rarely happens.

Liz Davis-Smith, Regional Manager for OPITO, the Skills Body for Oil and Gas from Hethel Engineering believes she knows why: 

“It’s a vicious cycle; although women make excellent engineers they often don’t believe it’s a credible option for them due to lack of role models.  From a young age, girls are encouraged into the caring professions by society. In other cultures this problem of gender stereo-typing careers isn’t so pervasive. For example China has an engineering workforce where women make up 33% of the total, in the UK it’s just 5%.”

The greatest irony is that once women have secured a job in engineering they contribute a range of invaluable skills and behaviours which sets them apart from the mostly male competition. A study from Manchester University, conducted by Professor Geoffrey Beattie, confirms that women have greater talents in communication, creating rapport and empathising with others – all behaviours which give them the edge when managing a team or dealing with a complex client brief.

So how can we redress the balance? I would suggest that girls need to be actively encouraged to build and create in the same way boys are, and it needs to start young.  A wander round Toys R Us shows gender stereotyping at its worst, with the engineering toys residing in the boys’ blue aisle and the girls’ department, a plethora of pink, dedicated to looking pretty and caring for babies.

Finally but most importantly, there need to be more visible female role models ready to help younger women starting out in the sector.  It’s only through providing on-going support and encouragement in this way, that young women will step forward to fulfil their potential as engineers.

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