Last week, I had the honour of being a speaker at the WESTC (Women in Engineering, Science and Technology Conference) in Johannesburg, hosted by Melrose Training! This exciting initiative sought to bring women from around Africa together to discuss pertinent issues surrounding being a woman in engineering. It was an all-round great experience and I had the chance to network with some incredible young women who are doing amazing things in South Africa. I will definitely blog about these soon.
My talk titled “Transformation in Engineering, Women and Changing the Face of Engineering”, took at look at attracting and retaining women in engineering in a slightly different light than the typical, ‘the numbers are just too low’ approach. Women stay away from engineering because of two main reasons. 1. they are actively discouraged from the field by society and 2. they don’t see any part of engineering that appeals to them. The number of high-calibre, successful and happy women who I met at the conference made it clear that this perception of society (and that of the young women being turned away from this highly rewarding field), is seriously warped.
Basically, engineering has an image problem:
and worst of all ???
Small wonder why you don’t just see women falling over themselves to be a part of this action?
What I’ve come to realize however is that the problem is not that engineering is a “man’s field” or that its “difficult and dirty”. These are generalizations, but they are true. In most engineering environments, there are still more men than women, and engineering can be very difficult and very dirty. But this is not the full picture. Engineers work in areas that the majority of society doesn’t even know about – that engineering students and graduates don’t even know about (shock, horror!) – and some of these are increasingly attractive and accommodating to women. If only the career-counselors, parents and mentors of young girls had a more realistic picture of what engineering was about, they would be able to help them make informed choices about their careers.
I suppose that is really what the Engineer-Chic blog tries to accomplish: transforming the image of engineering. Let me just say though that I’m not here to razzmatazz girls with pink icing or to make engineering look like a cupcake. Engineering is no more a cupcake than medicine or a competitive business-career is acupcake. What I want to do is give women the right information – the full picture of the opportunities available to them as engineers – to help them make an informed choice.
A study in perception was done by the National Academy of Engineering in the US which was reported in the publication Changing the Conversation, (2008). What they did was come up with messages aimed at improving public understanding of engineering. These were markedly different to “old-school” attempts at this which sought to emphasize strong links between engineering and maths and science, whilst ignoring other more attractive characteristics including creativity, teamwork and communication. This was tested and broadly disseminated to school children and teachers.
The survey found that girls saw the following two messages the most appealing:
“Engineering makes a world of difference”
(Boys also rated this highly)
“Engineering is essential to our health, happiness and safety”
(Boys did not rate this highly)
Not considered appealing by any of the survey populations was,
“Engineering connects science to the real world”
So girls find messages linked to ‘helping others’ appealing. Wow, what a shocking revelation (considering that women have traditionally been (with exceptions) nurturers: nurses, teachers, mothers!)
So then maybe if more engineers worked in fields related to helping others; maybe if the field of engineering was more about effectively communicating with people and building relationships with them to fully understand their needs; maybe if engineering was about working closely with human beings and empowering them to have the most basic forms of dignity: a house, a car, a flushing toilet; maybe then more women would be interested in the field?
Hang on just a second…
and how about this?
and lets not forget frugal engineering:
More on this topic in my next post…
Now if you think this is a daunting task, you are right. I have no idea how to estimate costs and quantities. In fact, there are companies that specialise in Quantity Surveying and Cost Consulting. They will come into the picture soon, but right now we’ve just got to get an estimate. Its really quite interesting – especially the schedule. You have to think about each task in the project and what tasks need to happen before this task can start. There is a lot of problem solving, but I have had great help from everyone from suppliers to our Procurement and Construction Managers. (Remember – although you may be a smart young engineer, you still will learn the most from experienced people. Asking for help may be the greatest tool you will ever learn to use at work).
Now this is one of the most interesting TED Talks I’ve seen!
Rather than getting angry at me, or thinking my problems were unimportant, he listened to everything I had to say and I felt that he really understood where I was coming from. It helped that it took me about a week to build up the courage to go and see him, and by then I had my emotions under control and had thought through exactly what I was going to say. He asked me to summarize everything in a short email for him to think about overnight.
The next day he gives me a ton of small tasks to do (including putting together an information document explaining how a project unfolds to semi-skilled/ unskilled labourers in order to manage hiring expectations-this was really interesting because is sometimes difficult to make things really simple and requires understanding and empathy-and loads of pictures!). The next day was even better-my PM calls me in and tells me there is another project just starting up involving the build of a beneficiation plant a mine up the road-and that he thinks it the perfect opportunity for me to get all the design experience I need!
The project involves the design and construction of a mini-plant that will upgrade the chromite ore we mine to the correct size and concentration before sending it to our smelting plants to melt into Ferrochrome for sale.
Today was the kick-off meeting with the mine’s engineers. A colleague of mine, A.N. who works on our smelting plant next to our Projects offices is a metalurgical engineer graduate who did a very detailed anaylsis and optimisation of a crushing and screening plant at the smelter. The (incredibly impressive) work he did is really similar to the beneficiation plant we’re building on the mine, so we managed to smuggle him into the kick-off meeting too (yay, friends!).
The project is really intersting-both mettalurgically and mechanically-and has many exciting design-features. The schedule is super-tight though, which means I am going to be working my cute butt off pretty soon (I honestly cant wait – I’ve been in withdrawel). The topography (lay of the land) is also quite a challenge and it was fun visiting the site and joining in the brainstorming session about what should go where to maximise efficiency. The project is really in the concept-generation phase still (which is totally the best and most creative part!) and the site is a green-field (completely untouched hillside). After the meeting and the site visit, the (senior metalurgist) engineering manager invited A.N. and I to his office to give us more background into the plant. I’ve realised that information-transfer between experienced and young engineers is so important. I love listening to these old dudes go on about how things that we take for granted (the plant we work on/ the process that governs it) were developed (by them) and the awesome things they have achieved over the years. Its very inspiring. It was great, although trying to follow the conversation between metalurgists was challenging. I’m learning a new aspect of engineering though, which is great.
I am once-again really happy with what I do and feel lucky to have such an amazing job that lets me create, solve problems and colaborate with great minds. I am really glad that I addressed my issues with my Manager. I cant believe how much your working environment can affect your happiness and how easy it was to set things right again. My advice to anyone who isn’t loving what they’re doing-don’t just quit. Calm down and have a good, clear chat with your boss. Try and sort it out before losing hope – you’ll never know if you don’t try.