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…