What do you get when you Google “women’s careers in engineering”? Mostly images of women in hard hats. Now, I am not knocking professions where you need that kit. But as a marketing tool for engineering careers it’s not terribly imaginative! We desperately need to do a better job selling engineering careers – the whole amazing spectrum of them – to girls and women.
I work in a very male-dominated industry – Formula 1. I’ve sometimes been the only female engineer among 100+ men. There are rarely more than two or three of us. This doesn’t bother me personally. But it bothers me that engineering generally struggles to attract young talent, especially women. Why doesn’t it appeal?
Let me tell you about my workplace and role. I work in a beautifully modern office. Our team carry out experiments in a highly technical wind tunnel facility, and we use supercomputers for simulated aerodynamic experiments. I am responsible for a group of design engineers who provide aerodynamic test designs for the race car (bodywork, wings etc), and another group who provide the technical tools we need to carry out successful experiments. I’ve never needed a hard hat or wielded a spanner - not that I wouldn’t be happy doing either. Actually I did wield a spanner once at one of my Dad’s amateur race meetings – but I doubt they’d let me loose on the F1 car.
Anything is possible in engineering
When I look around me I see engineers in many fields: Aerodynamics, Mechanical, Electronics, Systems, Structural, Materials, Data, Simulation, Software... Anything is possible: getting your hands dirty on the race car; inventing and carrying out wind tunnel experiments; designing car parts and simulating their performance; creating code to analyse terabytes of data and coming up with intuitive ways to display the trends... the list goes on.
Our engineering is fun, challenging, innovative and fast-moving. It’s about seeing a problem and being creative about solving it, then working in a team to get the job done. It’s about inventing the kit you need, designing and making it, trying it out, and then pushing your idea that bit further...
What curious, creative, engineering-minded person wouldn’t enjoy that? Regardless of gender, and whether you conform to a girlie-girl or a lad’s-lad stereotype or anything in between, surely if you’re a problem solver and inventor that sounds like fun?
Yet clearly many girls and women don’t think so. Or maybe (my theory) they don’t even know it’s out there.
How do we grab their interest, and keep it? I’ve seen great work done to encourage girls to take STEM subjects in school. They’re keen initially, but are later at a loss as to where it might take them. I have heard “I like Physics, but what can I do apart from be a Physics teacher?” many times! It seems that they don’t realise the opportunities that are available, or what modern day engineering roles really look like.
There are many different kinds of engineers beyond those in the traditional disciplines – and correspondingly different workplaces and environments. But the careers information has not caught up with the modern era of engineering in our technologically-driven world.
We need to rebrand engineering careers
We need to rebrand engineering careers, and market them to students from school age to university leavers. We need to expand and update the careers information, so that we raise awareness of the huge range of exciting – but perhaps unfamiliar – engineering careers out there. We need more female role models, and better visibility of what real engineering looks like today – preferably from a female viewpoint. We need to work on the images and the language that we use.
I don’t know exactly how we do all of this – that’s probably why I work in engineering and not marketing! But we need to make it happen because we are missing out on half the workforce at the moment. And lots of women and girls are missing out on a career that’s interesting, challenging and great fun!