By the time you read this, a significant date in the world of engineering will have taken place. On June 23rd 2014, the Women’s Engineering Society (WES) launched the inaugural National Women in Engineering Day to celebrate its 95th anniversary as an organisation. And, just like the organisation itself, National Women in Engineering Day is dedicated to raising the profile and celebrating the achievements of women in engineering. With over 50 organisations and more than 200 schools organising a range of events to support the day, it is certainly a date to make a note of for next year.
Which is exactly what Dawn Bonfield, Vice President of WES, and the brains behind the National Women in Engineering Day, invites you to do, along with thinking about doing something to support it too! I began by asking what drew Dawn, as a young woman, into the world of engineering and how this in turn led to her current role as VP for WES. “Like many girls who enter the engineering profession, I had the benefit of some ‘engineering capital’, which means in everyday language that my Dad was an engineer. This, I am sure, had a positive effect on my choice of career in that it meant I was given the encouragement needed to pursue the subjects I favoured at school, which were science and maths.” She also benefited from summer work placements at the Pilkington fibreglass factory in South Wales where her Dad worked which, during her school sixth form years, helped narrow down her interests, leading directly to a degree in materials science at Bath University.
This in turn led to a successful international career as a materials engineer, working for Citroen in Paris, British Aerospace at Bristol and then MBDA at Stevenage. What brought her to working with WES however was first-hand experience of what she sees as an all too common scenario, namely the failure of the engineering profession to keep its women engineers engaged in the industry after having had children. “I managed to return to work after having two children (when I was working for MBDA), but after the third child I felt that my engineering career was unsustainable with my child care responsibilities, because the work I was being given was not sufficiently rewarding to compel me to stay. This is something that we see time and time again, and when companies complain that they are unable to find experienced women engineers then I attribute this directly to the fact that they failed to keep hold of the ones that they had pre-career break. It is something ceilingthat definitely needs addressing if we are going to get more women to fulfil their potential into engineering management.”
She continues, “In some cases this means opening up more senior opportunities, something best achieved by cultural change and not quotas, as any positive gains we make here will have the price tag of looking like positive discrimination. It would be much better achieved by a promulgation of best practice and being championed by industry leaders. This is something that has been done successfully in other sectors such as Medicine and Law, so for a set of engineers who are good at problem solving this should not be an impossible problem to solve – we just need the will to do it.”
It is not just retaining women in engineering that needs addressing, it is encouraging them into it in the first place, something Dawn had little experience of herself. “I don’t remember being told anything about engineering or science careers, ever, at school, although I clearly remember my science teachers as being inspirational. I guess this was enough to keep me ‘on track’ towards the career I eventually chose as a materials engineer.” It is a scenario she believes is very similar today, in that careers advice is still lacking in many schools,with teachers knowing very little about careers in engineering. Hence she maintains there is a case for teaching engineering as a skill in schools, rather than seeing it as a ‘career’. “For example, if children understand that engineering is a process in the simplest terms of defining a problem, finding a solution, trying it out, improving it and trying it again, then they can use this process in practically every walk of life. This is what engineering is - not some vague unknown ritual that goes on at the weekend on the Jubilee line of the Underground in London and causes delays!”
It is also a matter of addressing the inequality between how boys and girls are taught. “There is a fundamental need to address the widespread failure to provide encouragement to girls who identify STEM subjects as possible career choices – unlike boys who are pushed in the right direction by society as a whole, girls on the other hand are not and, what is worse, they are sometimes even discouraged. We need to find a way to provide this encouragement for girls as well as boys so that they continue to be nudged towards a career in engineering.” She maintains part of the solution to this involves getting the engineering sector more involved with schools to show not just engineering in its best light, but also doing something for the girls in particular that links these inspirational insights to a career in the sector. Consequently, when girls come to choose their career options they realise that engineering can be for THEM.
But what exactly awaits a young woman who chooses to pursue a career in engineering? Much is made of the changing face of engineering - especially that it is now cleaner and more global in outlook. But what about the underlying attitudes within the industry? Dawn thinks slowly but surely the engineering sector is becoming more welcoming to women, partly because engineering is changing and partly because engineering companies are realising that a diverse workforce is more productive and ultimately more profitable. And it is this diversity that she sees as key. “I heard it said recently that there should not be a ‘pink door’ to engineering, but that is precisely what we do need - and a red one, a green one and a yellow one too. What we are aiming for is a diverse sector that welcomes talents that complement each other.”
She continues, “We know anecdotally that in a diverse team of engineers the women can often take on the role of organisers, communicators, and creators, which was demonstrated brilliantly by the winners of the Lego Robotics World Finals last year - a team of 3 boys and 4 girls from Bath schools. When asked how their skills had been used to get the best results it turned out that whilst they all loved the programming and building of the robot, the girls naturally brought additional skills that made a real difference. Things like liaising with the other teams and finding out extra information, designing the communication strategy, writing the blogs and the diaries, sorting out the logistics – all of these were vital parts of the whole project that built upon the basic engineering skills that they all possessed. This is what diversity is all about - bringing different skills and different thought processes to the table.”
Jane Robinson, business development director, Cutting Technologies
All of which leads neatly into asking about the role of WES in addressing all the above. “There are many hurdles that prevent women from progressing from the start to the end of their careers and WES is committed to trying to reduce the height of these hurdles in a number significant ways. For example, in the schools sector we currently have an outreach programme, called Magnificent Women, to take to schools to show how women have worked in this sector since the First World War; we use our members to go into schools to talk to students at careers fairs and shows; and we use role models through our ‘She’s an Engineer’ initiative to show that ‘normal girls’ do engineering. We are also keen to set up a continual engagement mechanism for girls to provide them with the nudge that they need towards engineering that is not provided by society. For universities we support students in their degree phase and into their early careers through student groups and our annual student conference. In their career phase, where we have the majority of our members, we support them individually through the conferences, networking events, mentoring, prizes, bursaries and the advice and advocacy we provide. And we work with a growing number of engineering companies to help them with their diversity agendas and their recruitment and support of women engineers. And, as of this year, the National Women in Engineering Day.”
Moving from the organisation to her own role, I ask Dawn what she would like her own contribution to be to the work of WES and women in engineering in general. “I would be very happy to be remembered as one of the many pioneering women that we champion at WES, who have made it easier for women to succeed in this exciting sector. When looking back it would be nice if people thought it inconceivable that we even had to do this diversity work, but I suspect that is what they thought 50 years ago! Let us hope we do not have to wait as long again.”
At this point Dawn points out that as an organisation WES is struggling financially and in desperate need of financial support, as it moves away from the need for so much volunteer engagement towards a more financially secure future. So we end with a plea for help and some words of wisdom. “To any companies out there who would like further information on supporting us, please get in touch. To any young women reading this thinking about a career in engineering, then remember engineering is in everything around you, it is for YOU, and it is a great career where you can really make a difference to the world. To any women engineers reading this, then use your influence, encourage others to follow in your footsteps and last but not least, join WES!”