Women in engineering goes international

Could International Women in Engineering Day on 23 June inspire more girls to choose STEM as a career, asks Benita Mehra

Who would have thought that our International Women in Engineering Day would have had such an impact? National Women’s Engineering Day has been going from strength to strength since 2014. It is now being celebrated in South Africa, Kuwait and now Canadian universities and colleges are hearing about this day and are asking how they can participate. This year, with the endorsement of UNESCO, INWED is international.

We need to challenge perceptions of engineering and of women in engineering. Only 9% of the engineering workforce, 6% of registered engineers and technicians, around 4% of engineering and manufacturing apprentices, and 1% of construction apprentices are women.

The lack of equality is costing all of us. It is estimated that giving women the right to play out their full potential in all areas of work could add as much as $28 trillion to annual GDP across the globe by 2025.

The UK has the lowest percentage of female engineering professionals in Europe, while Latvia, Bulgaria and Cyprus lead with nearly 30%. I have found some women engineers still operating in some hostile environments and who have to be resilient in their approach to their profession. But I have also found many like-minded people who, like me and my fellow WES members, want to make women engineers a norm and not an exception.

Benita Mehra

When we look back into history, the founding members of the Women’s Engineering Society (WES) were drawn from the National Council of Women set up during the First World War to enable women to take up the jobs that men had to leave behind to join the armed forces. These influential women founded WES, not only to resist this pressure, but also to promote engineering as a rewarding job for women as well as men. 

Brexit is causing a level of uncertainty in the market. The numbers of young women studying physics or engineering is not growing, so we need to find a way of getting women to enter the profession. Engineering students are a good source of talent and I would urge engineering students to take the opportunities available to them in industry and engineering rather than moving into consultancies and banking.

But we also need to retain our women in the profession, as currently the work environment is such that a large number of women have left the profession by the time they are in their 40s.

Our aim for INWED is to celebrate not only the formation of WES but also to recognise STEM women across the globe. Awareness of these pioneers – ‘hidden figures’ or the ‘women codebreakers’ from Bletchley Park – is growing but is still low in comparison to the portraits of men hanging in our professional and political institutions. We still need to do more. Schools could be encouraged to raise the visibility of historic women, such as Florence Nightingale and her statistical prowess as part of her work to reduce the high levels of clinical mortality, Amy Johnson and her courage in flying solo to Australia, and many others including Dorothee Pullinger, Daphne Jackson, Lady Moir, and Caroline Haslett.

INWED also gives us a platform to highlight the links between engineering, creativity and innovation. We would support schools and educators in integrating art and history with science and innovation, to spark thought-provoking ideas and so influence new futures. Our INWED celebration is a great way of increasing our reach promoting engineering and what it means to schools, FE colleges and universities, and to non-engineers, and of engaging women and men as our allies. 

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