If there was a single key to levelling the gender imbalance in engineering and technology careers, we’d have cracked it by now. Plenty of evidence shows programming of prejudice starts with babies, and girls begin to be put off engineering between the ages of five and nine.
We need a shift in thinking so people are treated as individuals from birth rather than pigeonholed. There are many good initiatives targeting teenagers – we just need to reach younger children.
I wish in this country we had a broader education – a mix of humanities and sciences – for longer. It troubles me that by the time you are 16, you’ve already narrowed your learning, and by sixth form it’s even narrower. I’m pretty sure we’re not teaching children the right skills for the future.
Engineers and technologists need a background in arts and humanities so that when they come to design and innovate, they’re thinking of wider societal impact and unexpected outcomes of what they’ve created.
And if we all had a better understanding of science, technology, engineering and maths, we’d be in a position to hold technologies to account and help steer the direction they are taking our lives in.
Recently, for instance, we saw a bunch of politicians trying to hold Facebook to account – a Commons committee held an inquiry into fake news that lasted more than a year and reported in February – and the questions they asked showed how little they understood of how these things work.
Research shows girls tend to be more interested in solving world problems. According to research by PwC, half of women said the most important factor when choosing a future career is “feeling like the work I do makes the world a better place” – although there are plenty of men who feel this way, too. Engineering careers are exciting – there’s lots of engineering linked to climate change, for instance. If we can get girls to understand that they could make a difference, then they’d be able to see a path for themselves.
But it’s the usual story: we need more visible role models – more successful young women – and we need to do a far better job of explaining the wide range of engineering possibilities.
I didn’t understand what engineering was when I fell into it. My dad was an engineer and I didn’t find it appealing. But it’s much broader. Whether you want to become an astronaut, get into clothing design or, as I did, into television … you name the industry and there’ll be an engineering career in it. I was attracted to the BBC because it sounded creative.
I went on to work for myself, and ended up building an independent radio station on Guernsey as the chief and only engineer. When I joined Sony, I got noticed for doing what, in retrospect, was making bold decisions, and this helped me progress. As president of the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET) for a year, I hope I helped chip away at the problem of attracting women. As a visible role model, it was great to send a message to younger women.
All of our working lives will change. Millennials will change careers and take more breaks, as we live for longer. And that will really help women, who’ve been disadvantaged by taking time out to have children.
I struggle when people ask me what it’s like to be a woman in engineering – I have other attributes, it’s just one side of me. I long for the time when we treat people as individuals rather than boxing them into stereotypes.
Source: The Guardian