The 23rd of June celebrates International Women in Engineering Day 2018.  This international event is held to celebrate the success of women engineers and more generally in Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths careers and subjects.  This celebration is held annually to attempt to redress the gender imbalance right across STEM subjects and careers.

Initiatives have been running across all sectors for quite a few years now to have more women represented in boardrooms, higher paid jobs and STEM subjects and careers but the statistics show there is still lots more to do.

The latest figures compiled by the WISE Campaign still show that in the UK Women are vastly underrepresented in may areas of STEM education.  Graduates in core STEM subjects in 2017 showed that just 24% of the near 100,000 graduates were women.  WISE Campaign also highlights that, whilst in some areas such as medicine, veterinary sciences, biological sciences women represent over half of graduates, in other areas, engineering and technology and computing sciences (14% and 15% respectively)  numbers remain shamefully low.

In their academic career, despite outperforming boys at GCSE level STEM subjects, a huge drop off occurs at 16 with only 35% of those taking core STEM subjects being women.  This trend continues into the makeup of the UK workforce.

Actual numbers of women STEM professionals are encouragingly rising – but at rates that are less than that of men and some in some areas of STEM careers women are hugely underrepresented such as Engineering – just 8% and ICT professionals – just 18%.  These figures are surely embarrassingly low for the UK and the knock on effects for the economy and progression as we still do not tap into this pool of skill and talent is staggering.

Where the causes for this imbalance lie are both complex and many, and there is no way I could pretend to be an expert on such matters.  However I have probably witnessed first hand some of the underlying factors that might lead to eroding the confidence of girls in STEM subjects.

In a way I am probably in a privileged position as we work predominantly with primary aged children, where the distinction between girls and boys – although still quite defined – is probably less significant than with older children.  I’ve witnessed over a thousand children using and enjoying the engineering and science challenges and never once witnessed a difference in enthusiasm between boys and girls in engaging with Moti-Lab.

What I have witnessed though, is a subconscious bias that still remains pervasive.  On no less than four occasions I have had (female) teachers feedback to me “the boys really enjoyed that” (or words to that effect) when there was no discernible difference in how boys and girls interacted with Moti-Lab – in fact sometimes the opposite was true.

On each occasion I challenged the teacher as “I saw the girls enjoying it just as much as the boys” and on each occasion it led to agreement – but the fact that it was mentioned at all rang alarm bells.  I’m not interested in castigating individual teachers – who have probably gone through an education system that taught them “science was for boys” – but that this issue arose at all was a shock to me and certainly something I thought should be consigned to the past.

Hopefully with initiatives such as International Women in Engineering Day celebrating, providing role models and inspiration to all women this unconscious bias will itself be eroded forever and we can capitalise on the strength of each person for both the individual and common good.

With this in mind I’d like to share with you the stories of the two very different Women in Engineering we have on board here at Moti-Lab to provide inspiration for our future Engineers.

A Female Engineer, smiling wearing and hard hat and hi viz vest

Nicole O’Neill, Women in Engineering

One swallow doesn’t make a summer – an unusual way into engineering!

I am sitting in an airport lounge when a colleague calls me to discuss the tolerances on an engineering drawing. After I explain what my customer wants to achieve and which parts of the drawing are most relevant to the machinist – I can’t help but smile to myself.

When the call is finished I think back to my school days and in particular one Maths and Science teacher who taught me at grammar school. He told me in no uncertain way that I should stick to languages; Maths and Sciences were not for me apparently. When I decided to prove him wrong and did exceptionally well – scoring the highest mark in my Maths exam – there was no praise. Instead he wrote ‘one swallow doesn’t make a summer’ on my exam paper. I didn’t try again. Instead I concentrated on languages and drama and enrolled at drama school.

I told anyone who would listen that I was rubbish at Maths. Time and time again I had heard that girls were better at languages and boys were better at the Sciences and I believed it. It wasn’t until many years later when I had to sit my GCSE’s in the UK (straight As!) because my German qualifications weren’t accepted by the Uni I was trying to enrol for, that I realised that I had never been ‘bad’ at Maths or indeed any of the Sciences, I had just been told that I was. The message kept getting reinforced by everyone who assured me that it was ‘normal’ for girls to be better at languages.

It was only by chance that I ‘stumbled’ upon my current technical sales job. I was hired for my languages of course and at that point I still doubted whether it would be interesting enough for me to work in the steel industry. Whether I could deal with all those numbers. Specifications? Grades of steel? Hardness? Impact Values? Tensile Strengths? All I could see was numbers. Numbers that I always struggled with. Technical drawings with angles and tolerances.

I decided to give it a go. I completed a metallurgy course, I visited forges, steel mills and test labs to learn as much as I could. To my own surprise I found it fascinating! I loved finding out what my customers would make out of the material I sold to them. Special valves for the Oil and Gas industry or chemical plants, parts for satellites, aircrafts and desalination plants. Soon I started to travel throughout Europe to meet my customers and visit trade fairs. In fact, that is where I am heading right now! I have worked in the industry for nearly five years now. I have come across the odd person that was ‘resistant’ to a young (ish!) woman turning up to talk about technical details but less so in recent times. I have taken pleasure in surprising people with my technical knowledge and I absolutely love my job!

Today I am passionate about changing attitudes and encouraging all children to take an interest in Maths and Sciences, that’s why I am involved with Moti-Lab. It doesn’t matter how many swallows there are, we can make our own summer!

Female Engineering discussing research results

Claire Jeavons, Women in Engineering

The only female in the room

I’ve been an engineer for the best part of 20 years and am currently writing up my engineering doctorate at the University of Sheffield sponsored by Rolls-Royce. I have always been an exception to the rule, often the only female in the room and for this reason have always felt that I need to perform better than the next male colleague to get noticed. Most of my career has been helping industries remove waste and boost productivity with the latest tools and techniques in continuous improvement.

Perceptions of engineering have thankfully changed during this time and although I experience things like men saying ‘morning gents’ to a room with majority men and me, in the most my work colleagues treat me with the same respect  as my male equivalents. I also see many more women on the shop floors and in a range of engineering roles in factories. However we still only make up 9% of the engineering workforce.

I always wanted to be an engineer from a young age and received many negative or surprised reactions to that from both genders but the reality is there is no reason why a woman can’t enjoy a rewarding career in engineering. We need to educate young girls into the range of opportunities available to them in engineering careers; we need to challenge the perception of clunky work boots and filthy working environments when most roles are nothing like that. Women have fantastic skills in problem solving, communication and innovative thinking which are what is required to succeed in any workplace, regardless of gender.  This is why I have dedicated many voluntary hours as a STEM ambassador doing just that.

In my role as director for Moti-Lab I can help to provide the resources for schools to engage children in STEM at an age before gender stereotypes become embedded so that they can get excited about STEM subjects and see their ‘mainly female’ teachers confidently deliver fun and engaging science, these teachers are  significant role models to them.

The tide is turning and if we are to tackle the STEM skills shortage in the UK then tapping into the talent of 50% of the population who are underrepresented can surely hold the key.