Evolving: Women in Engineering
June 23rd marks International Women in Engineering Day, but what does that mean for evolve, the women who work for us and the industry as a whole?
According to the WISE Campaign for gender balance in science, technology and engineering, the overall percentage of female engineering graduates in the UK in 2017 was just 14%; and while there were 12,000 more professional female engineers in 2017 than there was the previous year, this figure is still only 11% of the total engineering workforce.
In order to look at the picture closer to home, we decided to talk to some relatively new female members of the evolve team about education and employment, to see what impact, if any, gender has had on their careers so far.
Jess previously completed a year’s industry placement with evolve, before joining the team full-time last summer after graduating from the University of Leeds with a degree in Architectural Engineering.
Amy is currently on a year’s placement as she works towards her MEng in Civil Engineering with Architecture from City, University of London.
In order to fully grasp the situation for emerging female engineers, we were keen to know at what point they both started to develop an interest in the subject, what kind of barriers they faced, the perils of XXL PPE and how best to encourage young women to consider engineering as a career.
What first inspired you to follow a career in engineering?
Jess: When I was growing up, we lived in an old barn that we converted whilst living there and that was a real eye opener into the world of construction. I also had a love of math and science subjects at school as well as English and geography. Engineering, and particularly structural engineering, was a career that allowed me to pursue subjects that would normally be considered polar opposites.
Amy: Randomly, it was watching a documentary about the rebuilding of the Titanic where they were using original engineering and manufacturing methods to reconstruct the bow of the ship to form part of a new exhibition in Belfast. At that point in my life, I was feeling a bit lost as the recession had hit; I had been made redundant and had no idea what I wanted to do as a career. It was ‘a light-bulb moment’. I really enjoyed architecture and interior design and had a natural ability for maths (the one subject I had done well in at school) but I had no idea that the two could be combined.
As a student/recent graduate, what do you perceive to be the main barriers for women starting in this industry?
Jess: I don’t feel as if I came across any barriers whilst studying. This was probably helped by the fact that for my first three years of university, the Architectural Engineering cohort I was with had more females than males and the year group was also very high. There are even occasions when being a female in this industry has its benefits and perhaps, controversially, even makes us more employable. I am lucky to have entered the industry at a time when more women are pursuing engineering as a career, although we are often still in the minority when attending site or design team meetings. My hope is that, in time, with larger numbers of women entering STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering & Mathematics) careers, this will all change.
Amy: I personally haven’t faced any obstacles as a women, in fact, I faced many more as a mature student. To be an engineer, you need to have a certain level of education or have access to an apprenticeship and, unfortunately, it can be very expensive and time-consuming to gain that education as a mature student; especially as there is limited assistance from the education system after you turn 19. There are many women who are looking to come back into the workplace after having a family who would be very valuable assets to this industry but due to the lack of information and availability of education, they tend to not pursue what is a very rewarding and challenging career.
I also think we need to change the perception of what engineering actually is, as most people seem to think it revolves around being on site which is often not the case.
Amy, you came into engineering late; how did you feel enrolling as a mature student and do you think it gave you any advantages?
My University, City, was very accommodating from the start; they understood that I had more to offer than just conventional grades and that really helped. In fact, they have been hugely supportive the whole way.
I think that having previously run my own business, as well as working for others full-time, has given me a work ethic and drive that I wouldn’t necessarily have had earlier on.
Did you feel self-conscious stepping out on site for the first time as a woman or do you feel that attitudes are now changing in this male-dominated industry?
Amy: One thing stands out for me and that is having correctly sized PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) on site and available to buy for that matter. There is nothing worse than getting to site when you are just starting out to be handed an XXL coat and gloves, and being told that that’s all they have. You then have to walk around feeling uncomfortable and quite frankly, looking a bit daft! It may see really minor but it was commented on by a number of women on my university course. It’s all about perception, in my opinion, and giving people the wrong size equipment makes it look like they don’t care enough to accommodate someone different.
Apart from that, I worked in quite a few male-dominated environments before becoming an engineer so I didn’t feel it was any different. If nothing else, I got the feeling that people on site are actually more well behaved than if I wasn’t there!
Jess: I have found it is very much dependent on the site being visited. Some sites are excellent and have made me feel very welcome whereas others have felt quite intimidating. There are occasions where it feels like everyone’s eyes are on you as you walk around, almost as if having a woman on site is a novelty; a reaction which is furthered when they realise that you are the engineer! It is definitely more accepted that a woman could be an architect as opposed to an engineer. Things are improving, however, and if anything, most site workers are respectful and considerate.
Amy, you were a winner at the Association of Women in Property South East Student Awards 2016. Jess, you have been awarded a CIBSE Yorkshire Student Award as well as the Muasher Prize for the most promising Architectural student at the University of Leeds. What have these awards meant for you both and for your careers?
Amy: It was a really great experience that has enabled me to make some great contacts and to develop my networking skills. I am also hoping that I will be able to use it as a platform when I graduate to help promote women in engineering and hopefully inspire young women into the industry.
Jess: I think the main thing for me is that it helps me on days when I don’t feel as confident to remember that I won those awards for a reason and that can be a great motivator.
Amy, you’re currently on a year’s placement with evolve. How have you found it?
It has been fantastic! I look forward to going to work every day which was one of my main goals when I started on this journey. I have learned so much and I now know that engineering is definitely the career for me. I have got to work on some great projects with some really talented and knowledgeable engineers, who have been so patient in answering every question that I put to them.
Jess, you previously spent a year with evolve before joining us full-time; did you find this industry placement beneficial?
Doing a placement between my third and fourth year at university really helped me in my final year as I had become a lot more confident in my technical skills which enabled me to explore a more complex design which ultimately led to me winning awards for my project.
The percentage of female Project Engineers to male in the evolve office currently stands at 46% to 54%, which is a very positive statistic when compared to the industry as a whole. The Directors at evolve have always championed the role of women within the company; did you get a sense of this when you first joined the team?
Amy: I actually feel it more when I talk to other engineers because coming from university, where there were a large number of women in my year, straight into a company like evolve where the balance of female to male project engineers is almost 50/50, you forget that this is not the norm. It’s great that the evolve ethos has helped to create an environment where this is taken as standard.
The company also prides itself on being a family-friendly business that doesn’t shy away from offering flexible, part-time roles to its staff when the need arises; something which seems to work well for both employee and employer. Do you think this is an important in order to help keep women in the profession for longer?
Jess: Yes, evolve is ahead of the curve with flexible working and I think this is certainly something that would encourage women to continue to work in the profession.
Amy: The reality is that nowadays people want to have both a career and a family, and it’s reassuring to know that all the hard work you put in will not be wasted if you decide to become a parent.
The WISE Campaign states that its mission is to achieve “gender parity in the UK’s science, technology and engineering workforce – from classroom to boardroom”. The classroom is clearly a vital cog in the wheel. According to WISE, in 2017 “64,657 girls passed their physics GCSE, with nearly 30,000 of these achieving the top grades of A or above.” Whilst physics is a core requirement for engineering and an entry point for many other STEM qualifications, A level results show that “most of these girls will be lost to engineering because they decide not to to take physics, maths or computing any further.” Do you feel that there’s still a stereotype in schools about traditional ‘girls’ and ‘boys’ subjects that might hinder girls from choosing subjects which could lead to engineering?
Jess: I have found, particularly when speaking to young women about STEM subjects, that it’s often just a lack of confidence in subjects that carry very black and white answers.
Amy: I think that in my case it was more a complete lack of career guidance. From what I can recall, the only assistance I had was a 10 minute meeting when I was 15 where they asked what I wanted to do and then sent me off with some college brochures. I can’t help but think that if the adviser had looked through my records to assess my grades and interests, they could have perhaps suggested engineering. How are we all supposed to know, as teenagers with no life experience, what we want to do or what we are good at?
What would you say to school pupils, and especially to girls, to encourage them to follow a career in engineering?
Amy: If you want to do something that makes a difference to people’s lives, then engineering is a great option. You have the opportunity to influence people and society for many years to come; it is a part of everything we do in the modern world.
Jess: If you love Lego and figuring out how things work, then engineering is for you. Don’t let anyone tell you it’s a boy’s subject as the best engineers I know are female!
After speaking to Jess and Amy, we found that other changes are afoot, with influencers even targeting the pre-school market. One particular evolve offspring (at the grand old age of two and a half) is very taken with the CBeebies show Bitz and Bob, which has proved to be a big hit since its launch earlier this year. In fact, it’s rather telling that this launch was a BBC iPlayer exclusive on International Women’s Day before it aired on CBeebies during Science Week. The series follows eight-year-old Bitz, aided by her little brother Bob, who loves to come up with crafty engineering solutions to help solve problems; empowering her to “invent a way to save the day!”
When you hear that Children’s BBC Director, Alice Webb, has a Masters degree in Civil and Environmental Engineering and is also a Chartered Civil Engineer, it comes as less of a surprise that such innovative animated programming is now being commissioned. It’s certainly a good sign for the future as little engineers, and little female engineers in particular, are now being encouraged from a very young age to delve into this exciting, creative world which can occupy even the most inquisitive of minds using a variety of skills and strengths.
One could certainly call this progress.