I've noticed something about women in engineering...

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It turns out I've placed more female contractors with our clients in engineering-related roles over the last two quarters, than I have done in the last 11 years doing this job.

Is it just “Resourcer’s Luck” or could there be more to the metrics?

Women's Engineering Week was a blinding success so it seems, and products encouraging girls’ interest in engineering, such as those sold by GoldieBlox, are flying off the shelves. This got me thinking back to the original heroines of engineering who trail-blazed it for the sisters out there in what has always been an environment dominated by men.

Heroines of engineering

I'm sure there are many engineering heroines from back in the day, but the one I know most about is Ada Lovelace. They made one of the best software languages in history her namesake out of respect for her massive contribution to the cause of engineering, mathematics and computer science. The guy that invented Ada itself also named his daughter after her I believe, so he was obviously a fan of her work.

The nerds amongst you will know that the Ada software language runs just about every safety critical system out there in the wild. It stops planes falling on people’s heads, so it’s kind of a big deal to have something so important named after you in your honour.

Does gender still play at part in our working lives?

With all of this in mind, I decided to ask five female contracting heroines and engineers some pertinent questions to see if gender still plays a part in their working lives. I also wanted to ask whether it is relevant to be worrying about these issues given that we are all so busy doing whatever it is we do day-to-day. In total, the combined experience of my survey participants in their technical careers is just over 120 years.

So, now it’s time to summarise the general feeling of the respondents. Some definite trends did start to reveal themselves amongst the answers given.

  • Views on overt discrimination were mixed. It was hard to prove where gender had played a part in situations or any negative outcomes in the workplace, but by and large the picture was a healthy one with women and men sharing a balance. However, it was felt that women do have to work harder to prove themselves when up against male colleagues.

  • The ratio of men to women in certain professions such as engineering – and particularly in senior roles – is still heavily biased towards men, so there is still a long way to go before there will be true equality.

  • Interest in engineering is encouraged much more amongst girls in schools these days and therefore many more girls end up in either apprenticeships, other training or further education because they simply feel that it is a viable and accessible career option. Coupled with this, women’s experience on apprenticeships (and then later on in the working world) is now much better.

  • It is well known that discrimination took place in engineering environments years ago, making them unpleasant places for women to work. Nowadays, women have fewer fears about entering these jobs because they believe they will be treated equally and with respect.

  • However, things are generally starting to look much better for women in engineering and maybe there is even a chance that the proportions will shift so that the ratio of women to men is equal or maybe even higher. Why shouldn’t it be?

  • These ARE relevant questions to be asking, in an age of perceived gender equality. This is because the ratio of women to men in engineering isn’t equal yet.

  • Most colleagues and management seem to appreciate the quality of a person’s work over whether they're male or female. But if there was real perceived equality, no one would be thinking in terms of male or female – just whether a person is good at their job or not full stop.

  • Sweden is the only country to get it right regarding gender in the workplace. I won’t go into detail now because Scandinavians always get stuff like this right. We all know that.

  • The future is boundless for women in engineering, in other areas of technology or as entrepreneurs, and technology has a lot to do with this. Young girls still like all the girly stuff, but technology such as tablets and smart phones enables them to keep track of everything and be much more aware of what’s going on in the world, plus the opportunities open to them.

  • It needs to become normal for a girl to study Software or Systems Engineering or a similar technical subject. Girls are using more technology now so, perhaps, they will also get involved in its development.

One particular respondent commented that she hadn’t been overtly discriminated against because of being female but she had been treated with condescending and stereotypical attitudes including examples such as being the only woman in a meeting where:

“The other attendees (all men) automatically thought I was the secretary and there just to take notes or get their coffee. They’ve asked me for a drink before they’ve even been introduced to me. Within the defence industry, just because I’m female and haven’t been in the military, it has automatically been assumed that I don’t or can’t know anything about the services, equipment, etc. Sadly, in this industry there is still a ‘Good Old Boys’ Club’ attitude.”

Don’t just assume she's there to make your cuppa

She's probably your customer.

So, men and women still don’t view each other equally (unless they are Swedish) and we have a long way to go but crucially the tide is turning and the Good Old Boys’ Club is finally in decline.

There is no point in going back to the Dark Ages of an Analogue Planet Earth where all blokes behave like they are in the 1970s; dressing like Ron Burgundy, taking his views towards woman in the workplace on-board, whilst liberally dousing Sex Panther all over ourselves in a fruitless and comedic attempt to woo the attractive female PA.

So, what do I think? 

After treading carefully around this topic – which I was dreading writing about for fear of online backlashes from disgruntled gals and geezers – I have decided that, wherever women and men meet, friction is almost always guaranteed (whether any engineering is happening nearby or not).

I’ve noticed a definite increase in female Engineers being placed in contract roles and as skills shortages in the profession prevail (and where everyone is heading toward retirement age) this is driving an even greater need for both women and men to become Engineers.

What we need to think about is whether there are enough opportunities out there and is there enough encouragement for women to gravitate toward engineering at a younger age? And will I still have a girlfriend when I get home?

Looking into the future is enough being done to get everyone interested in a career in engineering, full stop, lads included?

Appealing to the next generation

GoldieBlox seem to think it’s about how we talk to our children in terms of male and female roles:

“Most of the things we can do to support our kids are hidden in plain sight; they’re the kind of things that, when said out loud, feel so obvious. In life and engineering, simplicity is king. So here we go: Using a mix of pronouns in the way you talk about jobs and careers is the most basic thing you can do to support your kids in an understanding that anybody can do any dang thing they want. It’s a way of framing their thinking – by talking about Engineers, Architects, Plumbers, Electricians, Mechanics, Doctors, and whoever with female pronouns, you help undo the myth that women can’t or shouldn’t be these things.”

So let’s start to talk to our kids about non gender-specific roles earlier on in life and give them a balanced view on who can do what when discussing their ambitions.

Blurring the line

On a lighter note and to finalise, here's a little YouTube clip from Mark Gungor that was a real moment of truth for me. It goes a whole lot deeper than who’s the cleverer and more capable of the sexes or why people obfuscate others’ pathways to success based on gender generalisations and insecurities in one’s own abilities.

Forget about the gender gap and get on with working hard at your specialist subject. The line has finally been blurred on gender roles and everyone who cares about their careers are all striving for the same outcomes, so let’s get over it and integrate.