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Here’s a contentious one for you all:
The latest edition of the E&T magazine with the cover title “We have an image problem…” has been dedicated to the ratio of women in engineering (currently 9% in the UK) and the premise, which is presumed undisputed, is that it is too low and it should be addressed.The question is, why do we actually need more women in engineering?
I even married an avionics engineer, from a country where they have a far better gender balance than we do.
I now work entirely for women engineers (i.e. my technical and commercial managers, and their overall manager). That is not an issue, not better, not worse, not different. What is an issue is the heavy, and completely unfounded, misogyny I have seen in other areas of UK engineering, particularly (in my experience) in manufacturing.
How 50% of the population interact with the other 50% in their private lives is a whole different (very complicated, and occasionally really quite fun) issue. But in the workplace a human being who is a good engineer is exactly that. Unfortunately many UK engineers (and indeed those such as teachers surrounding the industry) do not seem to understand this. At this point we unfortunately start getting into quite heavy psychology about how we let our 'social' behaviour and attitudes (being very delicate and careful here) interact with our 'work' behaviour and attitudes - remembering that human beings are extremely good at inventing and genuinely believing completely erroneous reasons and justifications for these behaviours and attitudes. We've had 300,000 years as Homo Sapiens, let alone everything that came before, to condition our social behaviour, whereas the workplace is a ridiculously new phenomenon. BUT other professions - and, as Alex points out, other countries - have managed to cope with this. So unless we think UK engineers are particularly socially inept (!) we really ought to be able to adapt as well.
But anyway, whether we decide to drive change because it will increase the pool of excellent resource, or we drive it because we don't want to work in a profession holding attitudes from (theoretically) a bygone age, I believe we do need to actively make change happen.
I approached it in an enthusiastic and supportive frame of mind, but found myself rather frustrated by the end. My question would be; are we replacing one type of inappropriate stereotyping based on gender, by another based on academic selection and intellectual snobbery.
It is clear that appropriately nurtured bright young females are capable of performing extremely well in academic STEM programmes. However many young people, especially those from less advantaged backgrounds, perform less well in academic situations during their teens. For many less academic intensity, but more vocational practice may work better. The Professions have for generations been difficult to access by those from less advantaged backgrounds.
The IET's Young Women Engineer of the Year Award was originally introduced as an award for those who had followed the apprenticeship pathway. Many young women have found a blend of technical and commercial skills including on-site project engineering an ideal environment to succeed, despite its sometimes "macho" aspects. The article photograph and Crossrail TV documentary illustrated this well. The success of female engineers in the armed forces, where leadership and practical initiative are often more needed than deep technical analysis, also reinforces the point.
Attitudes in engineering and technology are merely a mirror of the societies that they operate in. Sexist attitudes and “glass ceilings” still remain in parts of employment, as do the many other forms of prejudice that people hold. We can't abolish prejudice, it is part of the human condition , but we can manage its implications.
I would argue that our “profession” has invested far too many words in bemoaning its “lack of status”. I assume that all the exemplars in the article are Chartered Engineers occupying senior roles in highly respected organisations. One contributor has at least three of the most prestigious roles that could be imagined. Who would not admire and respect their achievements?
Unfortunately the solution adopted to this perceived “status problem” has often been to diminish and disparage less academically orientated practitioners of engineering. Trying to persuade government and the public that only those with 4 or 5 years of full-time study at university should be considered as “professional engineers”. We can all recognise the dichotomy between lightly trained people carrying out simple repairs and those who design and lead complex engineering in research, design, technology development or delivery of iconic artefacts. However, this dichotomy has been extended into the mainstream of professional engineering where it is often a false one. Perfectly good, high performing professional engineers and technicians with substantial experience and often good qualifications, including degrees, are stigmatised as “second or third class” to enhance the status of others. Unfortunately, many of those who lead our profession seem to have done little service to those women in engineering who don’t want to follow a “purist” highly academic pathway.
To those who deny the existence of this stigma, I suggest that they conduct the simple experiment of suggesting to an engineer who sees themselves as having some status, or being in possession of academic capital, that they should be an Incorporated Engineer. Having conducted this experiment on many occasions, I am confident that they will commonly encounter something between an indignant recoil and blank looks.
I recently attended an event where a major bank explained how it had rebalanced its recruitment from a traditional “graduate scheme” towards a degree apprenticeship. They also wished to increase diversity, address corporate social responsibility, internal culture and other issues. The scheme has already produced several high achieving bank managers from diverse backgrounds who probably wouldn't otherwise have attended university without employer support. I have direct personal experience of similar situations, involving engineers and quantity surveyors. I'm also chartered in a discipline that has become increasingly female dominated over the last generation and in which like many, "progression" tends to be judged during a career, rather than at school.
It is perfectly reasonable in my opinion that those who practice engineering and technology with a "graduate level" understanding and proven career responsibility over a reasonable time to be styled “Chartered Engineers”. Perhaps those who seek enhanced “status” should adopt another title to aggrandise, so that the widely recognised Chartered designation isn’t being inappropriately rationed and good professionals excluded. A common "glass ceiling" issue is caused by women tending to take maternity leave. Bringing the average age for "full" professional recognition down, might allow many more to "bank" this milestone first.
I don't have Andy's experience of working for women engineers, either entirely or in part, but the best manager I have had was female and not an engineer (but in charge of a number of engineering departments). I can also say that some of the best engineers I have recruited have been female.
Alasdair Anderson FIET