Rachel Nagy (Project Manager at OM) at home with her 3D printer.
Tomorrow marks National Women in Engineering Day so to celebrate we thought we would highlight some of the things women in the field are doing to challenge stereotypes and encourage more young women to consider careers in the industry.
First, some facts - according to the Women’s Engineering Society, only 9% of the engineering workforce is female and here in the UK, we have the lowest percentage of female engineering professionals in Europe. Sounds bleak, right? But last year, a study from the Institute of Engineering and Technology showed that half of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) enrolments at university are female and just over 30% of those are made up of engineering, technology and computer science undergraduates. However only half of those graduates actually go on to work in STEM roles - so what’s stopping young girls from considering STEM as a career choice?
Until recently, I was never a fan of the idea of intentionally equalling out the workforce gender balance to ensure inclusivity – it’s not that I don’t want equality as much as the next person, it’s just that I’ve always believed, naively perhaps, that a job should go to whoever is the best candidate. However, upon recent conversations with friends in typically male dominated industries like computing, I have been swayed towards the idea that if the workforce is visibly 50/50 it could break dated stereotypes and encourage more young women to apply for roles they otherwise would have never considered. In fact, studies show that gender-diverse companies are 15% more likely to outperform so there’s very good reason for firms to welcome more women and the unique skills and qualities they bring.
I have heard horror stories from women in certain industries who have experienced second-rate treatment in the workplace either because a uniform was not designed to their anatomy or worse, side-lined by a male colleague who refused to work alongside them. Whilst we can be glad in the knowledge that these extreme examples are very much in the minority, they are by no means isolated. Thankfully it seems as though things are changing for the better.
Tessa Colledge, Engineering Software Programmer at Delcam.
I spoke to Tessa Colledge, Engineering Software Programmer at Delcam (part of Autodesk) about her experience in the industry and what she’s doing in secondary schools as a STEM Ambassador to educate young women about the various opportunities in the sector.
“I think the girls I’ve spoken to at secondary schools would never have thought of computing as a way of applying maths skills. A few of them have been quite keen and they’ve really enjoyed me describing various aspects of my job to them,” Tessa explained. “Often the girls I speak to really love maths which is exactly where I was when I was at their age so I just encourage them that even though it’s an unfamiliar field for them actually it might be the opportunity to apply the skills they really love and it is open and accessible to women.”
Tessa discovered computing after she struggled to find career opportunities that required the level of math skills she wanted to apply in a job. Now based in Birmingham at Delcam’s headquarters, Tessa says though the workplace is male-dominated, the experience has been one of acceptance and any bias has felt has been largely subconscious. Tessa commented: “I’ve never found myself hitting against a brick wall.”
Much of Tessa’s work as a STEM ambassador involves chatting with groups of students, often both boys and girls, about how they can apply the skills they enjoy and are good at in exciting careers that otherwise might not be on their radar. The key advice Tessa gives is about knowing the skills you want to apply to a career and not giving up looking for a career to apply them in, having the confidence to take risks and try opportunities that might seem unfamiliar and finally, gaining valuable personal contacts. Still, the proportion of young women studying engineering has remained the same since 2012 and the percentage of girls studying physics at A Level has remained static for the last 25 years - that's something that STEM initiatives like hoping to change.
“I feel like there’s still a big obstacle in women viewing themselves as computer programmers but that’s also true in engineering and there are many candidates coming to the end of degrees wanting to apply those problem solving skills and not really considering STEM careers as an option,” Tessa commented. “This is why I believe in what I do in schools, giving female students that personal contact. To see a woman working in this industry it suddenly changes their perspective on them potentially going and working in that industry.”
Rachel Nagy, says having diversity in a team presents great opportunity.
Rachel Nagy, is a project manager at medical device manufacturing company, Owen Mumford. Rachel maps her journey into engineering back to when she was a child, obsessed with clever products that were making people’s lives better. After studying Product Design Engineering at the Budapest University of Technology and Economics and a Masters in Computer Aided Engineering with Manufacturing at the University of West Scotland, Rachel joined Owen Mumford as a New Product Introduction Engineer. As a woman in the sector, Rachel says she is taking charge of her role in the bid for gender equality.
“We need more female role models in engineering to inspire and show young girls that they can chose careers outside traditional female roles and create and lead diverse teams of engineers that can create value together,” Rachel commented, in a case study from New Technology CADCAM.
Owen Mumford manufactures small medical components such as Autopens for self-injecting and eye care solutions for administering drops. Rachel says her proudest project saw her design, build and validate an assembly line for a new autoinjector which helps people self-manage medication. Much of Rachel's job involves using software like SOLIDWORKS to create 3D models and often testing prototypes with 3D printing. Being equipped with these valuable skills means Rachel is able to meet tight deadlines and overcome technical challenges efficiently. Though Rachel always knew she wanted a career in making products that help people, she believes we need to work towards a future where we all have the chance to achieve our full potential.
“Difference is power,” Rachel commented. “Having diversity in a team is a great opportunity. We need to harvest the power of our differences and create functioning and fulfilling, diverse teams. My advice to any women who are thinking of going into design and engineering is—if you are going to be one, be a good one, and be proud of it, knowing that you are part of something larger than your life.”
Tessa visits schools as a STEM Ambassador to educate young women about the careers available in STEM subjects.
The skills gap in the UK is a major issue as companies seek the next generation of workers equipped with the skills needed to tackle the jobs of the future. There’s a lot of potential for young women with the right skills set to come in and close this gap, which according to a report on the State of Engineering in 2015, could contribute a staggering £2 billion to the UK economy.
“I think it is important for women to enter into this industry,” Tessa added. “I wouldn’t say they should come just for the sake of coming. I believe there are a lot of women with these skills, logical problem solving skills and those are the things they want to carry into a career.”
Examples of women in the STEM may only make up a small percentage of the overall story but there are plenty of them to shout about, particularly in the additive manufacturing industry where people like Harvard Professor and Voxel8 founder Jennifer A. Lewis, fashion-tech designer Anouk Wipprecht and MIT Professor Mediated Matter founder, Neri Oxman, to name a very small few, are inventing, creating and innovating to global acclaim.
I hope that some day soon we won't need a day to highlight the work of women in STEM. Instead, these achievements will just be as intrinsic as reading about any other feat in the sector - whether it’s by a man or a woman will be irrelevant. But until the statistics change, and they are slowly changing, let’s celebrate the role models we have and use them to show young girls who may have never thought a love of maths or problem solving could one day see them design a life-changing product or indeed being a role model to the next generation of STEM students, that engineering is as much for them as it is for anyone else.
More on National Women in Engineering Day - 23rd June 2016.