June 23rd - International Women in Engineering Day
Engineering is a growing field. In a world that’s increasingly reliant on digital technology, we also depend more than ever on people who have the skills to construct and maintain the machines that heal our environment, store our medical data and help us to communicate across continents. On top of the wide availability of jobs, Engineering is a pretty attractive career! The Women's Engineering Society (WES) estimates that engineers are the second highest-paid workers in the UK after Doctors, with 84% of female engineers stating that they are either “happy or extremely happy” in their working lives.
If somebody asked you what a typical engineer is like, you might think of a man who fixes greasy car-parts or rusty pipes. The person you’re imagining is probably a Mechanical Engineer, but this is just one of many possible careers in engineering. Chemical Engineers develop a range of products from perfumes and makeup to food and medicines. Environmental Engineers make sure that buildings are safe for the people, animals and landscapes around them. Biomedical Engineers work alongside doctors to improve patients’ lives by developing advanced prosthetics and diagnostic technologies. Put simply, engineers are problem-solvers, and we need different types of engineers to help solve every single different type of problem! Engineers make sports equipment, spacecraft and special effects. Their skills are needed in every workplace and in every country of the world. If women were equally represented in engineering, they would add trillions of pounds to our economy and save or improve countless lives through their work.
Women have a long and proud history of excellence in engineering, but because that history isn’t celebrated as much as it should be, a lot of girls and young women don’t consider becoming engineers. When Chi Onwurah started studying engineering, only 12% of her classmates were women. Instead of rising over the years, that figure has actually dropped. As well as being an MP for Newcastle Central, Chi is a Chartered Engineer with a degree in Electrical Engineering from Imperial College London. She’s a brilliant example of how diverse engineers’ personal interests can be, and of how important it is for engineering to integrate with other aspects of life, work and academic study. “I believe that engineering and politics are both paths to changing the world for the better,” says Chi. “ I am constantly championing the importance of more diversity in engineering – it’s good for business, good for consumers to have engineers with different outlooks solving problems and of course good for those who want to become engineers.”
Sometimes even engineers don’t realise at first just how influential they can be! Structural Engineer Roma Agrawal, who changed London’s skyline forever when she and her team built The Shard, was surprised to find herself becoming a role model for aspiring engineers. “I did not realise the influence I could have until recently,” says Roma. “It’s only in the last two or three years that it’s really struck me that I can do something...I realised that there aren’t enough engineers and started talking about how to change this.”
Civil and Chemical Engineer Ailie MacAdam knows all about the power of engineering. Probably one of the UK ‘s most prolific female engineers, she has led teams on some of the largest transport construction projects in the world. Like Chi, she argues that the key to producing more engineers is to increase diversity. “I know mixed teams make better business sense - they’re more profitable, but that’s not all that matters ... I’m generalising but women can feel drawn to being part of a team that’s doing something to help the world. Engineers have a direct impact on people’s lives, sustainability, the environment, disadvantaged countries and communities.”
Engineering requires people of all backgrounds and skill-sets to solve new problems in an ever-changing modern world. Gender diversity is just one part of the wider drive to make engineering as flexible, innovative and productive as possible. As Nuclear Engineer Haifa Ross says, “Engineering is too important to be left only to men.” Just like life, engineering thrives on difference and diversity - and simply wouldn’t exist without women.
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By Tess Gallacher