To my professional institution: this is not the celebration I’m looking for

23 Jun

Did you know that today is National Women In Engineering Day? This fact may not be particularly relevant to you personally, depending on your gender and field of work. It does, however, matter a fair deal to me. I’m a woman working for a large technology company, one where approximately three-quarters of the workforce (including myself) are either engineers or scientists. Of those, the vast majority are men. In my current team of around ten people, I’m the only female employee.[1] This is not particularly surprising: in fact, if you look at the statistics on women in engineering, you’ll learn that one out of ten is actually a slight overrepresentation. The UK engineering workforce as a whole is only 7% female, around one woman in every fourteen engineers. If we expand our definition to look at women in all STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) jobs, we still only get 13% women, just over one in eight.

These numbers are shockingly low. In fact, the UK is the worst country in Europe for representation of women in engineering.[2] This may be in large part related to subject choices: fewer girls take STEM subjects at A-Level; fewer pursue STEM options into further or higher education. And no, the difference can’t be explained by boys having “more innate talent” for these fields – at GCSE level, girls’ performance is comparable to boys’ in all STEM subjects (and this isn’t just a selection-bias effect of comparing a small number of exceptionally-good-at-STEM girls to a larger number of less-exceptional boys, either: maths GCSE is compulsory as part of the core curriculum, and there’s no longer any gender gap when it comes to science GCSEs, so we’re comparing similar numbers of boys and girls here). So why do so few women end up in STEM careers? As is so often the case, the reasons are complex, but culture and stereotypes definitely play a large part. The perception that Engineering Is Not For Women exists, and this perception needs to be challenged.[3]

So I’m glad we have a National Women In Engineering Day, described by its originators as “a day dedicated to raising the profile and celebrating the achievements of women in engineering”. Because, despite the gender disparity, women are making valuable contributions right now, and this needs to be acknowledged. Too often in history, women’s contributions to STEM have been glossed over,[4] and this only furthers the misconception that STEM fields are men-only. If we want to invite more women in, then showing them what they can do is a good place to start. I also applaud the day’s stated aim “to spread the word that engineering offers as many opportunities for women as men”, even if potential hiring biases mean this might not be entirely true. What can I say, I’m an idealist.

Therefore, I was pleased when I learned that IoM3, the professional institution to which I belong, has decided to mark this day with a celebration of its own.[5] And then I looked at the details of the event. And… oh dear. I feel as though the point has been missed a little.

They’ve entitled it “Engineering Success” and promised to give “the employee / employer perspective of the success of women in engineering”. The “employee perspective” is given by a woman who’s very accomplished in her technical field: so far, so good when it comes to celebrating women’s contributions and showing what they can do. So now let’s turn to the “employer perspective”. Since we’re meant to be showing that engineering offers as many opportunities for women as men, I’d expect to see a female employer here, showing that women can make it to the top of the management heap in engineering companies, and having her success in a less-technical but still engineering-related realm celebrated. But no, the employer perspective comes from a man. Okay, his group of companies employs a very respectable 46% of women, so I can sort of see the reasoning behind picking him, although I also note that no word is given on how this 46% splits between the various job families. I’d like to see more detail in these stats: if HR, PR, administrative functions and the like are female-dominated with the technical jobs still being overwhelmingly-male, I’m not going to be impressed. And either way I’ll still be disappointed that they couldn’t fit in a female employer as well. But never mind, let’s turn to the chair. On a day dedicated to celebrating the success of women, I’m sure they’ve found a highly distinguished female engineer to chair this event. Oh wait, my mistake. It’s chaired by Mark Miodownik. And I mean no disrespect to Professor Miodownik here: I’m sure he’s very good at chairing events. I just question whether his gender makes him the right choice to chair this one.

When half your hosts, half your speakers (arguably the more powerful half) and your chair are all male, what you’ve got is a rather lacklustre celebration of women’s successes. And when it comes to showing women and girls the opportunities that exist for them, you may be accidentally sending the wrong message. Because this arrangement of chairman and speakers seems to be saying, “Ladies, it’s fine for you to enter engineering. Look, here’s someone else who’s done it! But you need to know your place. The spots at the top are still only for men.”

 

 


[1] Unless one of my colleagues really isn’t telling us something.

[2] If my father is reading this, he may be pleased to know that Cyprus, his country of origin, comes out of the comparison fairly well – topping the European league tables with nearly 30% of its engineers being female. In other words, somewhere between one in four and one in three. It’s still not exactly gender parity, but it’s a lot better than what we’ve got here.

[3] And not by making engineering pink, either.

[4] For one randomly-chosen example, compare the number of people who’ve heard of Watson and Crick to those who’ve heard of Rosalind Franklin, whose work was vital to discovering the structure of DNA.

[5] In case that page gets taken down after the event in question, an internet archive version of it is available here. This is relevant, because I’m about to start discussing the page’s contents.

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2 Responses to “To my professional institution: this is not the celebration I’m looking for”

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  1. An update on “To my professional institution…”, in which said institution responds | Tea-fuelled Musings - June 23, 2014

    […] post this morning on National Women In Engineering Day (and in particular, my disappointment with the way IoM3, my professional body, had chosen to mark […]

  2. I want my jetpack: Why STEM’s woman problem affects everyone | Tea-fuelled Musings - September 27, 2014

    […] I’ve talked about the dearth of women in STEM fields. And I’ve talked about wanting to encourage little girls who […]

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