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‘More needs to be done to break the bias in engineering and manufacturing’

Sairah Bashir, research and development engineer at the Lightweight Manufacturing Centre

'To create an industry that is truly gender equal, the engineering sector as a whole must take a joined-up approach to educating young people': Sairah Bashir
'To create an industry that is truly gender equal, the engineering sector as a whole must take a joined-up approach to educating young people': Sairah Bashir

To mark this year’s #BreakTheBias theme for International Women’s Day, Sairah gives her personal view on the impact of misleading stereotypes on a career in the Stem sectors and manufacturing, and why we must educate young people on the fulfilling career paths within each:

I was recently asked what International Women’s Day means to me. As a female working in an industry that male workers have historically dominated, I am passionate about encouraging more women to follow their dreams. Today marks a movement to empower that change. The theme for this year is #BreakTheBias – imagining a gender equal world, free of bias, stereotypes and discrimination. It is upon all of us to enable this. 

When I was younger, I never imagined myself as an engineer. I was drawn towards biology and chemistry, and at that time physics was a subject where the classroom was mostly made up of boys. I went on to study a master’s degree in chemistry at the University of Strathclyde, and it wasn’t until my fourth year that I met PhD students who told me about their time in the engineering department.

Nearing the end of my degree, I began exploring career opportunities and found myself drawn to a PhD in engineering. At that time, I was the only woman – not just within my research group but within the entire office. Still a male-dominated industry, it was struggling to attract more females – we can still see this to this day, albeit to a lesser extent. It wasn’t until my third and final year, as new researchers were welcomed in the group, that it became more balanced. 

There has been a lot of investment in recent years to try and break that bias. A report by EngineeringUK last June found that women make up 14.5% of engineers*. This represented a 25.7% increase in women in engineering occupations since 2016, and I am proud to be one of the female engineers who has contributed to that increase. Yet more must be done. 

Women are still underrepresented in these roles globally, and to create an industry that is truly gender equal, the engineering sector as a whole must take a joined-up approach to educating young people on the vast number of fulfilling career paths. There are already more than 30,000 Stem ambassadors across the UK, from a range of disciplines in engineering, design and science, who are working hard to debunk the myths of these sectors and shed light on what a career can really look like. 

Engineering as a profession is often perceived as the role of a mechanic and is notoriously associated with being a position more suitable for a man, with the workload deemed hard, dirty and laborious. This is simply not the case, however.

At school, I never imagined that studying biology or chemistry would lead to me becoming an engineer. I thought that the subjects were distinct and that there wasn’t much crossover, but as a research and development engineer at the Lightweight Manufacturing Centre (LMC), part of the National Manufacturing Institute Scotland (NMIS), I believe that my background in chemistry has enhanced my role. I study the materials and testing that comes before manufacturing, and my chemical understanding brings a lot to the table.  

I get to work on projects that my younger self wouldn’t believe, and I am currently leading a collaborative R&D project called FutureFibre. We are combining the experience of academics and industry professionals to provide the environment, infrastructure and resources to delve deeper into alternatives to the traditional fibre manufacturing process. We aim to develop sustainable ways of making fibre composites and our end goal is to use these within sectors such as automotive and aerospace. It is an incredibly exciting project to be a part of, and most days my hands do not get ‘dirty’ at all. 

At the LMC, four out of the team of seven are women, while in wider NMIS, women make up nearly 30% of the workforce. Within NMIS senior management, three out of the team of seven are women who have carved out successful careers in manufacturing, sending a positive and inspiring message to us all.

So, what does International Women’s Day mean to me? I was given the space to develop my experience, try new things and follow my passions, and I think it is about ensuring that all females are encouraged to do the same. It is about inspiring the next generation and educating them on their choices. As we look to #BreakTheBias this International Women’s Day, I am proud to be a young, female engineer at the beginning of my career, striving to unlock a movement for change.


* A further report released last week by EngineeringUK found that women now make up 16.5% of the engineering workforce.

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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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