Author: Emily Stimpson -
“12.37% of all engineers in the UK are women," claims the Engineering UK report from 2018. It does not take a data analyst to conclude that this figure is low, very low. Why is it that women are not pursuing this career path? And what is it like being a student hoping to one day join this male-dominated profession?
As a woman currently studying engineering, I have always found statistics like this intriguing. I was introduced to the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) world by my high school teacher, and have since joined an exciting Robotics Engineering MEng (Hons) programme here at the University of Bath.
Since attending the University of Bath, there have been so many opportunities to get involved in the engineering community, beyond the laboratory. A perfect example of this is the Team Bath Racing Electric project. They design, build and race an electric racing car to compete in formula student competitions both in the UK and overseas, each year.
The student Women’s Engineering Society (WES) is another exciting group to be a part of and is available for anyone to join. This important society makes it apparent that the Bath community both supports and encourages women in engineering. Being a part of this welcoming group has enabled me to meet some wonderful women in the department as well as having the opportunity to attend events where inspiring work is being discussed.
Sometimes the thought of choosing any degree or starting at a new university can be daunting. As a peer mentor to a group of first year electrical engineers and now a UG Ambassador for the Electronic & Electrical Engineering Department, I have been able to provide support and information to both future and current students, just as I have received throughout my time here at Bath.
Furthermore, I believe as a woman in engineering it is important to encourage and enable engineering to be an accessible profession for all who wish to study it. As a recent member of the EDIT (Equality, Diversity and Inclusion) board within the Electrical & Electronic engineering department, it has been wonderful to see the identification of any improvements required and to see real action being taken to adjust accordingly.
So, why are there not more women in engineering? Be it a lack of representation in society today or a historic prejudice, I am lucky to say that I have experienced only positivity and encouragement on my journey so far.
Reading this made me slightly sad as I can really imagine myself writing something very similar to this at any point between about 2008 and 2013 when I was a Bath undergraduate, PhD student and a research associate. Then I had a child.
When my daughter was born I dropped to two days a week to write up my PhD. At this point contact dried up. Each week I confirmed to my supervisor that I was coming to campus and tried to arrange to meet with him. On the few occasions I heard back from him and where he confirmed a date and time for a meeting, he never showed up. I’d never been able to get an answer re a new workspace and increasingly as I didn’t hear from him at all I began working on two chairs situated in the corridor next to his office. When the chairs disappeared one day and five months after having a baby, I started working on the floor outside his office hoping to trap him into seeing me. A handful of times we crossed paths this way but I got turned away each time. About six months in, I got a casual email from him saying that my “being based off campus was inconvenient” to him, my work wasn’t “relevant” to his and he was stepping down as my supervisor.
I don’t know why this happened and obviously can’t conclusively pinpoint that this happened because I was female, however I can’t imagine a male researcher who similarly dropped their hours would be treated in the same way. A few months later I was approached about resuming my PhD again by my (female) research supervisor who was fantastically supportive. However, without contact with my previous supervisors I didn’t have regular access to data and resources and as such my thesis became increasingly outdated. I chose another direction for my thesis but in the end it never got completed. The end result is that I have three completely different thesis drafts on my computer but otherwise nothing to show for my PhD experience, am not technically considered ‘PhD standard’ and have no paid employment listed on my CV that dates after 2013. Alternative employment (at universities and in industry) in the time since has been hindered by my lack of a PhD or because interview questions have included ”do you intend to have any more children?”.
I am so very far from being alone in my experience and as I now find myself doing ‘mum’ things with a bunch of other overqualified women who took breaks from their careers or tried split/portfolio careers it’s very obvious that while we span different sectors and roles what we have in common is that we’re women who wanted to have families (but not be defined by that), be able to at least consider split maternity/paternity leave with our partners and ultimately resume the career roles that we were educated for, trained for and cared about.
Your article states that “12.37% of all engineers in the UK are women” and asks “Why is it that women are not pursuing this career path”. Degree enrolment levels are one reason, female representation is a well discussed other. But for all the “events where inspiring work is being discussed”, there needs to be so much more attention, research and acknowledgement of the women who DID get a degree, who DID gain valuable experience and skills as post-graduates, through graduate schemes, industry etc and what happened to them. How many women are qualified and eager to get back to engineering? What exactly are the barriers and obstacles that stop them from doing so?
If hundreds, thousands of qualified women are sitting and waiting to be remembered then it doesn’t matter if degree enrolment soars, if the number of female engineers increases and all ‘goals and targets’ are met – female participation in engineering should be considered a failure.