Statistics presented at the National Women in Engineering Day Conference raised some alarming questions, and some inspiring answers
On 23 June I attended an engineering conference in London where 96 per cent of the delegates were female. Having been a journalist in this industry for 12 years, I’m used to seeing a sea of suits (the trouser variety) at engineering events and never having to queue for the loo during coffee breaks.
The event was the inaugural National Women in Engineering Day (NWED) conference. It was inspiring to be amongst so many brilliant female engineers, who work in a variety of industries and roles.
A large part of the conference dealt with education and how to get more girls to consider engineering as a career. However, something kept cropping up that I hadn’t considered to be a potential barrier before — parents.
The keynote speaker Jenny Willott, Minister for Women and Equality, said that raising the aspirations of young women to pursue careers in engineering is something that she feels very passionately about. But she’s discovered that it’s not just young girls whose aspirations need to be raised.
“Parents of boys are nine per cent more likely to perceive a career in engineering as desirable [for their sons] than parents of girls [are for their daughters].” That is the biggest gap in any career. So we need to start with parents and not just children,” she said.
This was reiterated a little later when one of the conference’s token men took to the stage – Professor John Perkins, chief scientific advisor at The Department for Business, Innovation & Skills (BIS). In his discussion of the findings of his governmental report — Professor John Perkins’ review of engineering skills — he mentioned how parents’ attitudes need to change.
“For parents, engineering is positively the worst career choice for their daughters even though it may be a good thing for their sons to pursue. So a huge amount of work has to be done to persuade parents and indeed teachers that these days engineering is not a dirty, smokestack industry,” he stated.
One young female who relayed how this barrier almost cost her her vocation was Jade Aspinall, an apprentice currently in her third year of a four year engineering apprenticeship programme at MBDA, a global missile systems company. She’s even an award-winning apprentice having been bestowed Apprentice of the Year at the Best of British Engineering Semta Skills Awards earlier this year.
She started off her talk by saying, “When I was six my mom wanted me to be a ballerina, I wanted to play rugby league. When I was ten she bought me a pram, I used it as a goal post.
When I was 14 my teachers wanted me to do textiles because I was good at it but I wanted to do electronics because I enjoyed it. When I was 18 I was told women don’t go into engineering and this year I was awarded the best apprentice of the year award.”
Aspinall’s parents did not want her to study engineering at university (law was their preferred choice) let alone pursue an engineering apprenticeship scheme. The truth is, she may not be in the position she’s in today if she hadn’t ‘rebelled’ and gone against their wishes.
This all reminded me of an article I read in the June issue of MOG — a magazine for the Morgan enthusiast.
Not my usual read but I picked it up following my wonderfully enjoyable visit to the Morgan Motor Company (this issue’s cover story) recently. The article that jumped out was a piece on Prudence Fawcett — a Le Mans contestant and something of a legend among Morgan fans.
Born in 1913 in Derbyshire, she became interested in cars through her uncle, a racing enthusiast who introduced her to many in the motoring fraternity. A career high was competing in arguably one of the biggest events in motorsport — the Le Mans 24-Hour.
It was 1938 and she was racing in a Morgan 4-4. Although the car suffered a few issues it still managed to cross the line in an impressive 13th position, having completed 164 laps covering some 1,373 miles and averaging 57.2mph.
But Prudence’s parents, her mother in particular, did not share in her jubilation and was recorded as saying, “such an exploit has bought shame and embarrassment on the family, indeed, no one of our class goes motor racing.”
The article doesn’t state it, but you can’t imagine this snooty lady, for that’s what she sounds like, being supportive of Prudence’s career choice.
It’s a shame really but at least it didn’t stop her. She married a keen motorist and enjoyed the thrills of motor racing for the rest of her life, passing it on to her children too. I’m sure granny wasn’t pleased.
As every parent knows, engineering’s a job for boys. Isn’t it?