19 July, 2024

Conquering gender stereotypes

21 August, 2015

Thomas Edison, Alexander Graham Bell, Frank Whittle et al may often the first names that come to mind when asked to reference some of history’s most famous engineers and inventors. However, it is important also to remember that woman engineers have been enhancing all our lives with their ingenuity alongside their male counterparts for generations. Sarah Guppy (1770-1852), for example, was instrumental in designing Britain's infrastructure and developed a number of products for domestic use. In 1811 her first patented invention involved a way of making safe piling for bridges. Victoria Drummond (1894-1978) was the first known female marine engineer in Britain and the first woman member of Institute of Marine Engineers. Aeronautical engineer, Beatrice Shilling (1909-1990), corrected a defect in the Rolls-Royce Merlin engine during the Second World War. In the US, Emily Roebling (1803-1903) became the first woman field engineer of the Brooklyn Bridge after husband Washington Roebling could no longer work after becoming paralysed.

Beulah Louise Henry (1187-1973) patented such inventions as a bobbin-free lockstitch sewing machine and a typewriter that made multiple copies without the need for carbon paper. Maybe one of the most surprising names in the annals of women engineers is Hedy Lamarr (1913-2000). Many would immediately associate her name with the Hollywood glamour in the ’30s and ’40s, but it is extremely interesting to note that as well as being a famous movie star she also invented a remote-controlled communications system for the US military during World War II, which still forms the basis for modern communication technology, including Wi-Fi and Bluetooth.

Amy Wells, business development manager of industrial connectors specialist Electroustic, makes the point that, in recent years, there has been a plethora of media coverage and awareness campaigns to encourage and praise women working in the engineering industry. She adds that, as a result, female engineers are finally starting to be held in high regard.

A number of recently launched initiatives such as the Women’s Engineering Society (WES) and the Women in Science and Engineering campaign (WISE) suggest that the engineering industry is successfully bridging the gender gap. Yet still, only 6 per cent of the UK’s engineering workforce is female.

Wells bewails what she sees as myriad barriers preventing women from entering the engineering sector, believing gender stereotypes still remain a large factor. “From a young age, gender conditioning teaches us that hands-on, practical activities like Lego and Meccano are not for girls,” she said. “So it comes as no surprise that just 20 per cent of all A-level physics students are girls and that nearly half of UK state schools do not send a single girl on to study higher education physics at college or sixth form.”

Perhaps more worryingly, Wells makes the point that even women who are currently working as engineers have acknowledged the gender gap associated with the industry. Indeed, results from the UK Engineering and Manufacturing Census state that 75 per cent of the 300 female engineers surveyed still consider engineering to be a ‘male career’.

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