Home > News and views > View all

The advantage of being a girl in engineering… and being unafraid to be disruptive (from time to time)

Published: Sep 30, 2013 4 min read

Yvonne Baker

A week after I discovered the Atkins’ sponsored report “Britain’s got talented female engineers” I still feel excited. At last someone has actually committed to paper what those of us who have had the opportunity to work as female engineers have known all along; that together with the challenges, difficulties and – at times – downright frustrations, there are real advantages to being a woman in a traditionally male world. Not only that, but women really do bring qualities and attributes that engineering in today’s world badly needs.

This report is so full of exciting information and perspectives that I am surprised it hasn’t received more airtime. On the other hand, of the 300 female engineers surveyed, only one in twenty said that their career choice had been influenced in any way by something they had seen on the television or in the media, so perhaps it is not such a surprise.  What does come across in spades is not only the vibrancy of those who have gone into engineering, but also the excitement and satisfaction they feel as a result of their choice. As the report says,

“in a major vote of confidence, 84% [of respondents] are either happy or very happy with their career choice with 98% saying that engineering is a rewarding career for women."

Government boost to science and engineering

The Government’s recent announcement of a £400m boost to science and engineering teaching at English universities has a focus on encouraging women to study these subjects and go on to pursue careers in these areas. In particular there will be a reversal in the rules which stop part time students who have previously studied for a degree getting access to support for fees; thus enabling women to retrain in engineering and technology part time. This investment, together with the Government ambition to see a rise in girls taking GCSE physics go on to take A level, will support the National Centre for Universities and Business hopes to double the numbers of engineering degrees taken by women from 16 per cent to 30 per cent by 2030.

Advantages of being a female engineer

In terms of the advantages of being a female in engineering, it’s the stuff that I and the fantastic female engineers I know have been saying for years, but it’s great to see it in print. Too long these real plus points – including a different perspective, the ability to be noticed and the opportunity to make an impact – have been drowned out by the ‘but it’s all too difficult’ brigade. In this report, we have highly respected organisations like the Royal Academy of Engineering, Atkins, BP and Rolls-Royce publicly committing to spreading positive messages about the diverse and rewarding careers engineering can offer to everyone, backed up by exciting statistics and views.

Of course, no-one will claim it is necessarily plain sailing to be a woman in what is often a traditionally male-dominated world. However, as this report demonstrates, that challenge can actually be a plus point in itself, with 45% of respondents saying that one of the motivations for them choosing engineering was to do something different from the typical roles proposed for women. This reminds me of Kevin Stannard’s post earlier in the summer suggesting that girls’ should be encouraged to be more disruptive – this is the quality I believe he was talking about, a positive willingness to disrupt, to challenge set ideas and strike out on paths less known.

Inspirational teaching

Unsurprisingly the report also highlights the key role that teachers play in young people’s future study and career decisions. Over 90% of respondents said that an inspirational teacher was a huge influence on them, with a passion for the subject and inspirational teaching being key. At the same time, only 27% said that a teacher or tutor highlighted engineering to them as a possible career, with even less careers advisers (15%) doing the same. Just think, what could happen by doubling those figures, or even more?

What is so exciting about this report is the power it has to turn the ‘girls into STEM debate’ into something really positive and constructive rather than negative and, too often, rather depressing. As Alice McGregor an Atkins engineer featured in the report says, the beauty of engineering is:

“the ability to work on a variety of different projects, helping to change the world. You can see what you have done and put your name to it.”

I couldn’t put it better myself.