June 23rd 2019 is International Women in Engineering Day and the centenary of the Women’s Engineering Society. Founded in 1919, its aim was to connect and support women engineers who had taken on roles men left vacant after enlisting in the First World War. We’ve taken this opportunity to create a video looking back at the amazing achievements of women in engineering up until now, and showcase the women that are going to continue to make progress in engineering in years to come.

Currently only 9% of engineers in the UK are women1, and America is not faring much better with only 13% professional female engineers2. The gender imbalance in engineering is widely discussed, but the reasons this imbalance exists vary, from implicit bias to a lack of role models and frequent stereotyping. This means that there is no single, easy fix.

This year, Digital Science is running a campaign around Failure. Engineering is a field based upon the tangible application of theory, and so failure is required to bridge the transition from concept to reality. This is especially important when considering the problems an engineer might be trying to solve. For example, when building a bridge an engineer would have to account for such things as proper building materials, weight distribution and load maximum, environmental factors, sustainability, and so on. If an engineer doesn’t exhaustively test, break and improve their concept, as well as considering how the bridge might be safely constructed, the project could fail with disastrous consequences. In some instances, failures in these aspects has benefited women, for example in the case of Emily Warren Roebling. Though she was not an engineer by formal training, Roebling was tasked with the completion of the Brooklyn Bridge after her father-in-law, who was leading the project, died of tetanus following an accident on site, and her husband was forced to retire after suffering from decompression sickness from unsafely returning from a deep river dive to investigate the foundations of the bridge. Generally speaking however, women in engineering are not encouraged to embrace failure.

According to the Lean In survey, a comprehensive study about women in the workplace, women are less likely than men to believe they will receive challenging assignments3. Superficially, these actions seem well intended; however, they curb potential success in women, which can hinder their job performance or even inhibit their career trajectory.

As failure is commonly associated with negativity, it is frequently avoided. As such, women in particular are less well equipped to navigate and recover from failure4. Additionally, women in engineering are often in the vast minority gender in their workplace, referred to as “Onlys” in the Lean In survey. This often results in a woman being treated as a representative of her gender, such that if she fails it reflects on her gender, as well as her5.

Many believe that women succeed less because they are intrinsically less confident than men. Confidence is often cited as one of the causes for the gender gap. A well known statistic from Hewlett Packard states that men apply to roles they are 60 per cent qualified for, whereas women only do so if they’re 100 per cent qualified for each criterion in the job description. However, according to Tara Mohr, a women’s leadership expert, it isn’t a lack of confidence, but instead a greater inclination towards rule-following6. Studies indicate that women are as confident as men, but are frequently punished for expressing confidence in the same way7. This is a result of the social expectation that women conform to traditional gender roles. As a result, Mohr calls for women to be less willing to follow the rules. But, that is only a partial solution.

Ultimately, we need to challenge the cultural practices in engineering that enforce institutional sexism, starting from our education system and making changes at every level, all the way up to the workforce. It is critical that men as allies push for this culture change, and speak up about the inequalities in their workplaces, by calling out the sexist behaviour of their peers and committing to diversify their workplace.

A more diverse workforce is better able to identify the challenges faced by society, and offer a wider range of solutions to overcome these problems. If we are excluding such a huge proportion of the population by failing to challenge the gender imbalance in engineering and the barrier to women joining and indeed remaining within the profession, progress in engineering will come about much more slowly. While the centenary of the Women’s Engineering Society gives us a chance to reflect on the progress that has been made by many amazing women, here’s to hoping that by another hundred years’ time gender is no longer a barrier to women in engineering.

Video and article by Selina Gerosa, designer and Marketing Associate, and Dr Suze Kundu, materials scientist and engineer and Head of Public Engagement.

 

1: http://9percentisnotenough.hscampaigns.com/
2: https://www.bls.gov/cps/cpsaat11.htm
3: https://womenintheworkplace.com/
4: http://time.com/4008357/girls-failure-practice/
5: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/07/21/sunday-review/women-ceos-glass-ceiling.html
6: https://hbr.org/2014/08/why-women-dont-apply-for-jobs-unless-theyre-100-qualified
7: https://www.theatlantic.com/family/archive/2018/09/women-workplace-confidence-gap/570772/