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FEATURE: Role models and practical experience inspire new female engineers

Paul Haimes, VP EMEAI solution consulting at PTC

Stock image. 'Our pressing engineering skills and diversity crisis threatens social and economic growth' (Credit: stock.adobe.com)
Stock image. 'Our pressing engineering skills and diversity crisis threatens social and economic growth' (Credit: stock.adobe.com)

Kristin Lewis is excited about pursuing a career in engineering. The 17-year-old secondary school pupil is leader of her school’s Formula Student team, and she is already planning what mechanical engineering course she will attend following her A-Levels next year.

“I’ve just been to some university open days. I’m especially keen on the courses that have placements in industry in the third year. I’m really looking forward to it,” she says.

Young women like Kristin are needed to swell the ranks of women in engineering. At the moment, only 16.5% of the engineering workforce are female. While this is an increase from the 10.5% recorded in 2010, we need far more to enter the profession, especially if we are to address the engineering skills crisis we face in the UK.

As Dr Rhys Morgan, director of engineering and education at the Royal Academy of Engineering, says: “Our pressing engineering skills and diversity crisis threatens social and economic growth. Women and minority ethnic groups remain vastly and unacceptably under-represented across the broad spectrum of engineering and technician roles. In terms of gender diversity, we have a fundamental challenge to attract more women and girls into engineering careers.”  

Several barriers stand in the way. For one, schools do not teach engineering as a subject. Often if a girl shows an aptitude in physics and maths, she is steered down a career path towards science or medicine. If they are not exposed to engineering from a young age and understand what it entails, they might not consider it as a career option.

That was Kristin’s experience. “For me the spark into engineering really came from watching ‘The Big Life Fix with Simon Reeve’, a British TV show where a group of designers and engineers work together to create new inventions to improve the quality of life for people with different needs,” she says.

“They would make something to improve someone's life. I felt very inspired by it and considering that my favourite lessons at school are design and the more mechanics part of physics, mechanical engineering made the most sense.”   

As Kristin discovered, engineering is about problem solving. It’s creative, varied and exciting. Unfortunately, this is not the perception that a lot of young girls have of engineering. Stereotypes of engineering being a job for the boys still abound, and are ingrained from a young age.

“I think we can attract girls into engineering by making it seem more accessible. We need to show that engineering is for girls just as much as it is for boys,” says Kristin.

Thankfully, there are initiatives underway to inspire girls and young women into STEM and to help quash engineering stereotypes. For her part, Kristin has been working with her design teacher to set up a young engineers’ club at her school.

“I want to help run it, mostly because I never had that when I was younger. I think it’s a great way to expose both girls and boys to engineering,” she says.

Run by the IMechE, Formula Student also exposes older teenagers to practical engineering. “I was going through a real racing car craze and Formula Student sounded great,” says Kristin. “I put a team of six together and appointed myself team leader. Together we designed the car using PTC’s Onshape, we then had it manufactured, and our first regional race is this September.”

Another potential reason for girls and young women not pursuing engineering is because they do not see female engineering role models. A recent study commissioned by McLaren Automotive and children’s rights charity Plan International revealed that 61% of schoolgirls want to see more female role models in engineering to encourage them to take up STEM-based careers.

“Apart from Claire Williams, the former deputy team principal of the Williams Formula One racing team, I didn’t find that many,” says Kristin. “Obviously they don't have to be women, but I think it has a much bigger impact on a young girl if they are, as it shows that the sector can be diverse.”

‘We’re all in this together’

There are female engineers thriving in their careers who want to inspire and share their experiences. Aleesha Mitchell is engineering director at Aish Technologies, for example, a Poole-based manufacturer of defence electronics enclosures and turnkey cathodic protection systems. She formerly served in the Royal Navy for 13 years as a weapon engineer officer.

Aleesha admits that she did not aspire to be an engineer, and instead hoped to become an officer in the navy. A degree in physics soon led her to engineering.

“I first did my officer training, followed by engineering training. Once that was complete, I started my first engineering job onboard a warship and I’ve never looked back,” says Aleesha.

Aleesha says she was never made to feel as though she did not belong. “If anything, I was encouraged. I didn’t find any conflict. There was more of a feeling that we’re all in this together. I was certainly never told I couldn't do something because I was a woman, or that I wasn't capable."

Aleesha Mitchell

Aleesha Mitchell

Encouraging more women into engineering roles can also only be good for business. Engineers create the products that shape our world, so it is crucial that both genders have a hand in creating them.

Gender diverse teams have also been shown to perform better. “There is much evidence to show that diverse groups are more innovative, more effective, and ultimately, more productive in the economy,” says Dr Rhys Morgan.

“Accelerating progress on diversity and inclusion in engineering will bring benefits to both the profession and the public, from greater creativity and productivity, to increased awareness of risk and products better designed to serve the needs of people from all parts of society.”

Many organisations realise this, and there is an increased drive for diversity and inclusion today. “I’ve led a number of engineering teams during my career so far and I’ve seen the positive impact that diversity has. From a leadership perspective, it’s about managing that team to foster an inclusive culture, and maximising the talent of each member to get the best result,” says Aleesha.

When she stepped into her new role at Aish Technologies, she soon met a new challenge. Tasked with a major digital transformation project, she is using PTC’s Windchill Product Lifecycle Management (PLM) software to transform Aish’s low-volume but high-specification product range from 2D paper drawings into highly accurate 3D digital twins.

“Windchill ensures that the documentation and data of our products is kept all in one place. It’s really had a positive impact on how we work as a company. It’s exciting to be able to use technology in this way,” she says.

Aleesha is using the digitisation project as a recruitment aid to attract new talent. With a pool of only 16.5% to draw from, finding female engineers is a challenge.

“Currently I have two junior female engineers and I’d love to have more but it’s not for lack of trying. For every 50 applications we only get one woman, but hopefully things will change. Engineering is such an exciting and fulfilling career that I absolutely encourage girls and young women to consider it,” she says.

Itis not just Aleesha who thinks this – a 2017 survey of 7,000 female engineers by the Royal Academy found that over 80% would recommend engineering as a great career to their friends and family.

Kristin is already aware of this, and is raring to go with her mechanical engineering degree. She looks forward to what the future holds. “In my career I like the idea of using engineering to address climate change, but that doesn’t seem to coincide with my passion for motorsport,” she says. “I could always combine the two and look into making motorsport more environmentally friendly. Isn’t that amazing? It’s all about solving problems.”  


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Content published by Professional Engineering does not necessarily represent the views of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.

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