Few people who have walked past the statues of great engineers like Isambard Kingdom Brunel, George Stephenson or Joseph Bazelgette are likely to have stopped to consider where all the statues of female engineers are. In the City of London, less than a fifth of the statues portray women and the vast majority depict nymphs, deities or Queens.
There are no statues of Beatrice Shilling, whose work allowed British fighter planes to match the maneuverability of the Luftwaffe in the Second World War, or of Caroline Haslett, whose work on electricity has made homes much safer. Alas, the only commemoration to Beatrice Shilling is ‘The Tilly Shilling’ pub in Farnborough. Of course, no one set out to neglect the great women in our history, in the case of engineering there are just disappointingly few to commemorate. This is a reflection not of innate ability, but of the conscious and unconscious biases which have stymied the progress of talented women and our economy over the years.
There is no doubt that the position of women in society has improved. One of the oldest statues in the City of London dates back to 1586. It portrays Elizabeth I who reigned at a time when society was very patriarchal: the ability of women to rule, to study or to be anything other than a wife and mother was seriously questioned. A lot has happily changed since. Female medical students now outnumber male ones and women are at the heart of some of the world’s biggest businesses: Marissa Mayer was the first female engineer at Google and is the current Chief Executive Officer of Yahoo, Sheryl Sandberg is the Chief Operating Officer at Facebook and Virginia Rometty is the CEO of IBM, to name but a few.
But the progress is too slow. Women still face biases in society, most acutely in the pursuit of careers in science and engineering. Commonplace stereotypes often make women feel that they do not have a place in science or engineering: in toy shops, science kits are often exclusively positioned in the ‘Boys’ section, female scientists in films bear little resemblance to reality and the myth that girls ‘can’t do numbers’ pervades the classroom from an early age.
Given these challenges, it is perhaps no surprise that when primary school children in one study were asked to draw a scientist, just 14% of girls and 1% of boys drew women. Although roughly half of Physics GCSE pupils in 2014 were female, 49% of English schools do not put a single girl forward for A-Level Physics and women account for barely 14% of engineering graduates and a miserly 4% of professionally registered engineers. One study recently found 25% of people could not even name a single female scientist.
The impact of this loss of skill and talent to the UK economy is considerable. The UK needs 80,000 new graduate engineers each year to meet demand but we currently only produce 25,000. This paucity of engineers holds back innovation in UK companies and ultimately productivity.
We need to move beyond the lazy stereotyping of both men and women, and we need to start in childhood. Toys like Lego and Raspberry Pi are fun but also the perfect building blocks for an understanding of basic engineering at an early age. Engineering is about an ability to solve problems. This is a skill that men and women share equally, and we should encourage girls to think about this as a career. Women who do enter the engineering profession seem to be very content with their chosen path: 80% of female engineers are happy with their choice, 87% do not feel hindered by being a woman and 98% of women engineers believe that engineering is a rewarding job. There cannot be many professions with such high satisfaction ratings!
We need to move beyond the lazy stereotyping of both men and women
Unlike our statues, society is not set in stone. Progress has been made, but there is a lot more to do. Parents, teachers and employers all have a role to play in encouraging girls and young women to consider the broadest range of careers and society should support them in their endeavours. Only through such efforts can we hope for more female engineers and scientists and, indeed, some female statues to stand shoulder to shoulder with the engineering giants of the past.
This article was originally published 23rd June 2015 on http://www.telegraph.co.uk/education/educationopinion/11692958/Women-in-engineering-female-progress-is-not-set-in-stone.html