I recently had the opportunity to partake in a conversation with a fantastic panel of women engineers about the challenges facing women in the engineering field today. This was sponsored by British Gas in celebration of National Women in Engineering Day (#NWED) as an extension of the Women in Engineering conference (that I did not even know existed but will be looking for next year!), and you can read their take on the conversation here. Although their major concern was the future of women in engineering and the lack of encouragement for little girls to join the engineering fields and other male-dominated careers there were many issues that were addressed. The ladies discussing these key questions (and more) were:
-Claire Miles, Managing director of British Gas Homecare
– Nadia Abbas, British Gas Engineer and Success Coach
– Dr. Arti Agarwal, Professor from the School of Mathematics, Computer Science and Engineering at City University and
– Dawn Bonfield, President of Women Engineering Society with
– Dickson Ross, the Editor of Engineering and Technology magazine chairing the panel.
Mr. Ross started the discussion off by asking the panel who their female role models were – and the answers were sometimes surprising. One answer was “all the women engineers at Bletchley Park” which I perked up to, having only recently discovered the whole idea of Bletchley Park. Did you know that out of the 10,000 people who made up Bletchley Park during the war, 75% of them were women (Bletchley Park Research), yet only few of them like Mavis Batey (formerly Lever), Margaret Rock, Joan Murray (formerly Clarke) and Ruth Briggs are even mentioned once in a blue moon. Other answers were Heddy Lamare, who is actually known mainly for her role as the “sex kitten” of the 1940s cinema scene, rather than the patent she won in Electrical Engineering which has been used in cell phones, and during the Cuban missile crisis. Other answers included Marissa Mayer from Yahoo! and all the females who had and have a part in making Google such a spectacular company. How many of these women are known for their achievements?
The panel all agreed the biggest challenge facing women engineers is how to attract young girls into the field of engineering to ensure the future of women in engineering. Science and math related career prospects such as engineering, medicine or architecture (to name a few) have historically been considered to be “male” oriented. Why? Because in the past women supposedly existed to cook, clean, take care of the children and cater to men’s every need. Okay fine – that’s a long time ago – the World Wars, the advent of women working, the feminism movement fighting for equality and earning us ladies the right to vote, the right to fare wages (sorta?) and treatment in the working world have all changed that…but not really – because at the base of how we think as a society, women are still the care givers and men are still the bread winners. A little girl who would rather have a chemistry set or a soccer ball instead of a Barbie is still considered “strange” and is usually discouraged in that line of thinking – and that, perhaps, is what needs to change. It’s not the little girl who loves that doctor’s set in the store window that should change, it is our attitude and our perceptions as parents, caretakers, adults and role models that need to shift – the perception that women cannot succeed in a male dominated career has to be dispelled because it is simply not true. The parents, the aunts, the godparents….the ADULTS need to change their perspective and teach these girls that a construction truck toy is just as worthy as the newest Monster High doll or latest Barbie doll (and no, I don’t have kids so may be behind times in my knowledge of the toy department!!). When your daughter is wondering “where to go from here”, perhaps show her that her choices are not limited to traditionally female roles; perhaps she is the person who has the cure to cancer or the solution to world hunger hidden somewhere behind the pretty glitter makeup and pretty in pink outfit. Instill in her, from the time she is born, that she is as good as her brother in anything she puts her mind to and that she can be that award winning surgeon or scientist or engineer if she wants it and that it’s perfectly normal and perfectly acceptable to want this dream.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to be one sided here – I don’t believe that little boys who like to sing, dance, dress up as Strawberry Shortcake or comb the hair of the latest My Little Pony should be told they are wrong or odd in any way either. Children should be allowed to explore – regardless of how feminine or masculine their explorations – and should be allowed to be children and discover life. This post, however, is about celebrating women in male dominated careers; how women can go further in male dominated careers in the present day and how women in those careers can encourage the younger generations to consider these careers as viable options – so I will be concentrating on the female side of things (sorry guys). Anyway – my point, before I went off on my little rant, was that the panel agreed that it was up to the parents and the women in engineering (and male dominated careers) in our generation that are responsible for creating interest and encouraging our girls to look at all their options, not just the “expected” female careers.
This is why I celebrate my parents and their parenting style so much, especially my Mother, because I was always pushed to reach for the moon regardless of naysayers for as long as I could remember. I actually found it amazing that the encouragement of girls to enter scientific based or male dominated fields is such a concern here in England, because when I was growing up, my parents and my school (an all girls’ high school in Trinidad) encouraged me towards the “traditional” scientific career paths, once I chose the sciences stream (we were based on the O level and A level system) – that was Engineering or Medicine (and if you weren’t in sciences, Accounting was also acceptable 😛 ). I hated Biology and wanted to avoid medicine, and was a bit of a Physics geek (yay Fluid Dynamics!!), so I chose to go towards the Engineering field – and after faffing around for a while, went into Architecture and Building Sciences. I grew up with some amazing female role models who made me believe that the world was my oyster and that I can do anything I wanted to, however, something that many girls around the world do not have access to but should. There is no limit to how far a girl, or a woman, can go in her life, except for her imagination and her willpower. Where there is a will, there is a way.
It’s not just the perception in the home that matters and that needs to change, however. Middle and senior managers today don’t necessarily have females in mind when it comes to investing in or moving employees up the ladder. For the future of women in male dominated careers, we have to fight for the attitudes of our leaders to change now because these attitudes, as much as feminism has won so much, have still not reached to the point where they truly allow women to be seen as investments. We have to open up the opportunities to a wider range of applicants, for example, as Nadia Abbas pointed out, apprenticeships and internships are currently advertised in trade magazines and only reach those who know about these magazines or who already have knowledge about the field – why not try advertising these in more mainstream magazines? That teenage girl wondering about what the most recently released brand of lipstick is and what it can do for her skin can see the possibility of becoming the chemical engineer that develops even better ones in the future as a reality – but only if she knows that the opportunity is there, acceptable and available to her. (I betcha you did not even think about engineers being in your cosmetic companies – but there are more than one way to skin a goat…um….ie there are many opportunities that are considered engineering that mainstream opinions may not think of).
“…Engineers will have to be able to solve not only technological problems, but they will have to get behind human problems (water shortages etc.). For women, it is in their favour, because it is the opportunity to change the world for the better using your feminine caring side…” ~ Claire Miles.
Women also have an advantage in that they are naturally better at caring – they are willing to use their knowledge and power to change the world for the better using their feminine caring – and this is a key requirement of an engineer in the future – after all, the knowledge of technology is key for any engineer, but the future engineer will prosper only if they have the ability to communicate that technology and to utilize it in a way that benefits mankind. The future role of an engineer will therefore be divided into two parts – the technological and science based half, and the half that will have to involve social sciences and the willingness to help. Even today, technological advances in the engineering field can bring fresh water to underprivileged villages in far-away countries, or even create a better standard of living for some in your own country. Imagine what it can do in the future.
“….There are two halves to the story – one half of the story is how technology changes and how people need to upgrade with technology changes. The other is the social sciences. How to design and communicate that design….Future engineers will have to be ale to do humanity and social sciences as well…” ~ Arti Agarwal
It is estimated that 60% of science/engineering exposure is in the home, and to upkeep the transfer of knowledge and encourage the future generations into the sciences, the ladies on the panel suggested to go on science/engineering themed outings as a family to places like the National Science Museum, for example. It was also mentioned that the “de-sexualisation” of what was expected as “feminine” in the home should occur – in other words, stop telling girls that they should be playing with dolls and not soccer balls, construction sets or chemistry sets. Let children be children and stop the rhetoric at that. Pink should not just be for girls and blue not just for boys.
As for the recent comment by Nobel prize winner, Tim Hunt, on women distracting men in the workplace, the general consensus was that Tim Hunt has now publicly defined this difference in female and male engineers , but that instead of seeing the differences as a bad thing, we should be valuing the difference. We should be thankful because Tim Hunt has brought the issue into the forefront and now it is being discussed, rather than something that is a “dirty rumour” behind closed doors in the upper echelons of both the female and male engineering society. In other words, Tim Hunt is just the “tip of the iceberg” being the one who said what everyone else was thinking. Tim Hunt stating this is not, therefore, the root of the problem. The problem lies in the minds of people who have not actually vocalized the same thoughts yet remain brooding about it. After all, as many of my professors have stated in my academic life and as Arti Agarawal stated in this panel, when one person in an entire university class mentions something or asks a question, at least ten other people are thinking or wondering about it and not saying it….so how many people are actually thinking the thoughts that prompted Tim Hunt to say what he has said and how can we, as women, respond to nip it in the bud and deal with the situation so that we can create a positive outcome. Many men (and some women) are actually terrified about the issue or at the very least, are confused as to how to respond because men in general don’t have to think about many of the things women have to think about during their careers. The path a woman walks during her career is different from what a man can even imagine; the additional challenges based on sexism through the ages, the idea of fair wages and the lower glass ceiling are not things that men consider during their daily lives – and when it’s brought up, they don’t know how to discuss it for fear that their opinions will be considered chauvanistic or inappropriate, or maybe, on the other side of the spectrum, too sympathetic for a “man” to think. We need to address these problem – the issue has been brought to the forefront but cannot be left to fizzle out and die for the sake of progress.
This thought brought to mind something that came up in my workplace the other day. My supervisor sent me on a site visit and was prepping me, asking me to lift a ceiling tile to check the height of the soffit above the ceiling and the possible presence of utilities etc. in the plenum of the ceiling (in English – basically lift a ceiling tile to see what was there). Then he said “just ask Rupert or Tom and they’ll do it for you”. I joked and said “You mean I should wear a skirt to the site visit so that they’ll climb up on a chair for me?” and he laughed and said “Maybe…”. Now, because I know his personality, I know he meant well, but, since that conversation happened, I have been wondering if I’ve helped or harmed my case and what my responsibility as a woman in a male dominated career was in that situation. He was not trying to be sexist in the insulting use of the word, but in its own way, it was sexist and it was insulting. At the same time, in its own way, my response was potentially inappropriate and encouraged this type of “innocent” sexism – but this is a great example of how women, myself included, can unthinkingly sabotage ourselves and contribute to the negative experience of other women in the workplace. These innocent “jokes” may not be so innocent after all….and to my fellow women I apologise for taking part in it….but we live and we learn – and we should all learn how to deal with these situations without making the situation worse. That, I think, is why a society like “Women in Engineering” is so advantageous to us as women in male dominated careers, because we are all going through this and the camaraderie and sharing of incidents like this, the sharing of knowledge and techniques and advice, it all helps us to reach a consensus on how to continue and helps to move us forward.
Finally, another key issue facing women in male dominated industries is retention. Did you know that if you “allow” a woman to leave your company/industry after maternity leave, it is estimated that you are losing a £200 000 investment per woman?! Coupling this with the fact that most women who become pregnant do not go back to their jobs (especially after their second or third pregnancy)…that’s a lot of wasted income, so it even makes financial sense (if nothing else) to invest in methods to retain your female workers. We need to alter the working world’s programme to be more inclusive and more conducive to retaining their female workers. Suggestions to help achieve this are having companies specifically create and put retention programs into place, offer flexible and/or smart working options to both women and men. We need to change the idea of “standard rules” for working – and consider that perhaps we need to work in a way that is conducive to living rather than just living to work. We need to attempt to change the work culture so that people (male and female) can take care of their life around their work commitments (school pick ups, doctor’s visits, PTA meetings etc.) instead of fearing the consequences of having to take time off to do so. It was also pointed out that when women leave engineering or other science based or male dominated fields for any reason, they usually do so to go onto something that gives them a better work/life balance. The question is therefore, how do we, as a society, create a better work balance in general for female employees in male dominated fields so that they decide to stay within their fields? Women are valuable in these fields and have a lot to contribute and say – it is worth the investment to keep them there.
If you’re interested in hearing more about what these lovely ladies had to say, check out all the videos from the panel …and if you want to see me ask my question, feel free to take a look…but do forgive my appearance – it was mid-allergy attack and my face was swollen and red and I could not wear makeup (yes bad timing but this one intrigued me that much that I chose to go anyway).
Now, I know this post was a bit different from what I usually write – but I’m proud to say that I am a woman who works in a male dominated field who faces unique challenges daily. I’m a woman who believes my field can definitely benefit from the inclusion of more women in the field and the retention of more women in the field. I don’t usually miss my “in real life” world with my blog world, but perhaps I should – after all…my life is not all about product reviews and champagne (oh wait I didn’t write about the champagne did I?). What is your opinion on women working in male dominated fields? Have you considered the challenges they face?