Representation is important: Marking 10 years of International Women in Engineering Day
By Florence Lansdown
23 June 2023
This year marks the 10th year of International Women in Engineering Day (INWED), a day set up to give women in engineering a profile and hopefully inspire more young women and girls to take up a career in engineering.
Over the last few years, the number of women working in engineering has continued to grow (6% increase between 2010-2022) but still women only made up 936,000 (16.5%) of a 5.6 million workforce in 2022.
These figures could lead you to believe that the role of women in engineering is only just emerging, but women have played a role in engineering and design throughout history, whether that is through early scientific discoveries or the invention of practical solutions to day-to-day issues, often under the guise of anonymity or with little credit altogether.
The theme of this year’s INWED is #MakeSafetySeen so it seems apt to mention just some of the many safety inventions and designs brought to us by women:
- The original video and audio home security system by Marie Van Brittan Brown (Marie van Brittan Brown | Lemelson (mit.edu)
- Kevlar by Stephanie Kwolek (Stephanie L. Kwolek | Science History Institute)
- The improved life raft by Maria. E .Beasley (Maria Beasley: Engineering dynamo | Institute for Transportation (iastate.edu))
On International Women's Day, Ford released this advert, which was a great way of showcasing the contributions of women, with a delivery that catches you off guard.
The increasing number of women in engineering appears to be closely linked to STEM outreach in schools.
Ten years ago today (when the first INWED was taking place), I would have been taking my final A Level exams. I had attended a school with a specialism in maths and science and had enjoyed a large amount of exposure to STEM opportunities. I was fairly confident in my abilities and had mostly enjoyed studying.
At university it was a very different story, my confidence had already been knocked by having to retake an A Level exam and I found myself nervous to start a course in a male-dominated field. It felt like individual failure may be used to dismiss women in the sciences and engineering as a whole and I spent a lot of my university career with intense anxiety and a fear of failure which affected my work.
It would be interesting to know how many girls who are inspired by outreach at secondary school make it to STEM careers. How many women drop out of STEM at university level and what reasons do they give? At the time I imagine it feels like not being good enough and like if you can’t do it, then you are just promoting the idea that women don't belong in STEM - but I think it is more to do with the culture of ‘keeping face’ where in a large class students might feel pressure to pretend to understand something rather than be caught asking questions. This can lead to masses of anxiety and a mounting feeling of pressure to succeed.
Of course, this feeling of inadequacy compounded by well-meaning comments of "Oh you do physics (or engineering, chemistry, maths, biology), you must be so smart!" would dredge up feelings of being an imposter. A feeling I am sure many women carry with them long into their careers.
I was fortunate that at the times I was closest to quitting I could hear one of my A Level teachers suggesting I "do a more girly subject like biology", despite being one of the top physics students in my class. Rage (and a little bit of spite) from this has kept me going through most of my higher education and my career so far.
Recently, however, a colleague explained to me that she had felt the same way at university and found great comfort in her universities Women in Engineering Society. Hearing that other students were having the same experiences made her realise the pressure she had put herself under. Letting go of this allowed her to enjoy the rest of her university career. This highlights the importance of communities within STEM that allow minority groups (such as women, people living with disabilities, members of LGBTQ+ communities and people of colour) to share their experiences.
I've spent the first five years of my career trying to rebuild my confidence back to what it was before university. There is a hard balance to be struck with regaining self-confidence. After all, a level of anxiousness allows me to be better at my job, making me sense check numbers and reasoning, actively listen to the views and inputs of others and have significant attention to detail. My experience at university has taught me to avoid just trying to keep face at all costs and ask the questions that need to be asked whether they might be considered annoying or not.
A large part of my attempt to rebuild my confidence has come out of internal INWED discussions held at Max Fordham where I have learnt that I wasn’t alone in the way I felt. Being a member of the Women and Minority Gender network at Max Fordham has further helped me validate my experiences both in higher education and the early stages of my career. Further to this, an opportunity to see myself in women further through their careers than me has helped me root myself in engineering.
Although the construction industry has improved in the last couple of decades in terms of its attitude towards professionals who aren’t cis men, discussions with colleagues and my own experience show that we are still quite often made to feel unwelcomed in the industry. A common and seemingly passive example includes the countless number of emails addressed to “Gents” and in some cases the male equivalents of our own names. Although this can seem harmless it can compound the feeling that we are not welcomed in our own industry.
It is for these reasons that I feel the representation and outreach International Women in Engineering Day provides is so important. Needing to see yourself in others from your industry (whether present or from history) and to have a forum to discuss experiences is fundamental to succeeding without constantly feeling a creeping sense of inadequacy and pressure.
Visit www.inwed.org.uk to find out more.