Women in STEM: inspiring women engineers

women in STEM

Elizabeth Donnelly speaks to Government Europa about women in STEM and how women are making their mark in the engineering industry.

Promoting women in STEM is still a necessary campaign, as the science, technology, engineering and maths sectors continue to be overwhelmingly male-dominated. The Women’s Engineering Society (WES) has been campaigning for the acceptance of women for almost 100 years, since 1919. With a growing recruitment gap within engineering, it is becoming more obvious that women are needed to fill that gap.

Traditionally, a lot of employers in male-dominated industries like engineering, would not employ women as they were considered inferior. However, women in STEM sectors are making their mark and we have a number of intelligent women inspiring Europe’s younger girls and proving that women engineers are just as well-trained, intellectual and talented as their male counterparts.

Elizabeth Donnelly is one of these inspiring women, having worked in the industry for many years and gained a lot of experience, particularly in the aerospace sector. She is now the Chief Executive of WES and is set on creating more visibility for women in STEM, especially through pushing for more research and policy; to assist in departments getting more women into engineering. Donnelly speaks to Government Europa about what the industry currently looks like for female engineers and communicates the visions of WES as it enters its centenary year.

In the light of WES centenary celebrations, how has the industry evolved and changed since the society started?

1n 1919 women were being removed from the factories as men were returning home from the war. WES was formed as a direct result of that, and also in response to the suffragette movement. In December 1918, women were finally able to stand for election and we owe a huge debt to the suffragettes. We still work in connection with some of these organisations in asking women to stand for parliament, lobbying for women in STEM employment and women in engineering. When WES started, women were seen as an anomaly and incapable, we were faced with a situation where women were not seen as equal. During times of war, it was a case of: we need people in factories whilst the men are at war, and the only people to ask are women.

It was not until the late 1950s that this perception of women changed and they finally started to be seen as capable. During this time, 0.5% of engineers were women, now the figure stands at 12%. Although we have seen a large increase in the number of women entering engineering, it is only increasing at a rate of 1% a year. This is still not good enough. Now, however, women are accepted in the workplace and there is no question that women are not capable. Companies are actively recruiting women because they have a shortage of skills, and they are not going to beat this shortage by only considering 50% of the population.

Are there any negative stereotypes still suppressing women from entering the engineering industry, can these be overcome in a bid to encourage more young women in STEM?

Many people perceive a job in engineering as dirty, working with heavy machinery, working on building sites and dark factories. This is not the case. We do not see enough of what goes on inside engineering organisations and factories for the general public to understand. Most people still believe that a woman engineer still means that you are a mechanic, however, the majority of our members work in very clean labs and factories. A lot of them also work at desks on software to create engineering solutions. The industry is generally seen as male-dominated and women-unfriendly and I think that some companies find that hard, because they do not intend to be unfriendly, they just do not know how to be more accepting of women in STEM.

On another note, industry images of exceptionally pretty women on the sides of buses and on brochures leave many women wondering how they fit into that, as that they not thin, pretty and blonde. For our recent WES Apprentices Conference, we deliberately chose an image of a very ordinary woman engineer in the industry. She was working at a machine, had safety goggles and overalls on, and it was very clean. She looked very real and showed engineering as attainable.

What do you believe to be the biggest challenges that women in STEM are faced with during the recruitment stages of their career?

In terms of recruitment, I think the issue we have is that because the industry is so male-orientated, generally it is the men who do the hiring. The problem here is that they do not see the world in the way that women do. An example where this is prevalent is in Formula 1. Often there will be TV panels with a lot of men discussing the sport and not once is a woman mentioned. The motorsport industry talks about bringing in more young men, and they do not see that they are excluding women, because that is their world. If women are not seen in that environment, then they just think that it is not for them.

A woman going into a male-dominated industry 25 years ago was seen as a trailblazer, 10 years ago that woman might have been one of five or six and was seen as a role model. But women do not want to be trailblazers or role models, they just want to get on and do the job. Young men going into engineering do not think about having to prove themselves, because they are not trailblazers. Men enter the industry and automatically think: I am going to be an engineer.

Women in STEM are also faced with the worry of how they will be accepted and treated in the workplace; sexual harassment and general sexism is still rife and this can deter a lot of women from entering male-dominated industries. I also believe that a lot of men feel intimidated by women in the workplace when they do not need to be. This is another barrier. Women have gone from learning their jobs, wanting to get on with their jobs, and then having to overcome a lot of attitudes from the men they are working with. Again, it is all about visibility; it is frequently the case that there won’t be any images of women in STEM on the websites and in the brochures from a lot of companies. Often the employers cannot see that they haven’t got female inclusion.

What is on the horizon for WES? Are there any upcoming projects that are going to help support, change, and normalise the idea of women engineers?

WES has just had its first Apprentice Conference and there will be another one next year. It is great to see so many young women joining these conferences from a multitude of backgrounds. They are all very keen and excited to be a part of engineering, however, we do not just want to appeal to graduates or chartered engineers, we want to appeal to all women who work in the engineering field.

We also work a lot with STEM Returners, which is about women who have worked in engineering and then taken a career break for whatever reason – to have a family, care for a family member or to travel. We believe that companies should be able to be more flexible when involving women and bringing them back into engineering. This works for men too. If women are going to ask for a career break and then return with flexible working hours, men should be able to as well. We need to have appropriate STEM Returners policies that would benefit both men and women in STEM, to allow our workers to take some time out of work without the worry of losing their jobs or having to leave the industry permanently. We have found that whenever we have policies that benefit women, they generally start to benefit men as well.

Do you think that enough is being done at the governmental and at the EU-level to support women in STEM?

No, there is one engineer in Parliament, and when you think that there are 650 MPs and only one of them is an engineer, it is clear there needs to be more visibility, particularly as engineering and manufacturing contributes a vast amount to UK GDP. I believe that the political parties need to be more active in encouraging women in STEM subjects to stand for Parliament. We are a very innovative country – partly because we are an island nation – and we have always had to make things for ourselves. However, there does not seem to be a large pot for investment in this at the moment and the government needs to work on promoting the value of manufacturing and engineering. The EU is a lot better at this and women engineers are more widely accepted as part of the profession. I think the EU has a better handle on the situation than the UK.

This being said, the government and the EU are making efforts to change. There is more investment into certain areas of engineering, for example aerospace. Where people specialise in such areas, there is an incredible amount of enthusiasm and understanding for women in STEM; however, we can do a lot more to raise general awareness.

Elizabeth Donnelly

Chief Executive

Women in Engineering Society

Tweet @wes1919



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