Women in Engineering


In a new campaign to encourage careers in engineering, a group of female engineers stage an epic pillow fight involving catapults, explosions and drones.

I watched the IET video and found myself conflicted.

The young women in the video are beautiful as well as ingenious. Close-ups of lipstick, nail polish and perfectly coiffed hair reinforce the message  that you can be a girly girl and still be an engineer; you don’t have to be a tomboy to get a kick out of practical problem solving.

And it’s an important message. After disastrous exam results in my first year at university, my tutor explained that there were two types of women: those good at maths and those who were feminine. He suggested I change course to something more suitable. Such nonsense may have been well intentioned, but as reverse psychology it worked brilliantly. I gritted my teeth and scraped through the engineering course I started.


Beyond university, engineering is one of the most meritocratic professions I can think of. It isn’t about how you look, but about how you think. Success is rarely down to star individuals; is all about high-performing teams. Communication, creativity, lateral thinking, puzzle solving, and planning become crucially important. The joy of a career in engineering is the constant mental stimulation. And the satisfaction of creating beautiful, elegant, life-enhancing products.


So why am I conflicted?

The IET video has a Top Gear feel, a testosterone-fuelled take on destruction. While applauding anything that encourages diversity, I find myself wondering whether the video replaces one stereotype (engineering is not for women) with another (how a woman looks is more important than what she does).

Compare the IET video with the recent UK army recruitment video “This is belonging”.

In 1979, I went to university to study chemical engineering, motivated by scientific parents, a great comprehensive school and television programs like Tomorrow’s World. It seemed to me that while many people were able point out was wrong with the world, there were fewer people with the skills to help put it right. I have travelled the world and had a fantastically rewarding career.

But the ratio of women in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) careers remains low in the UK. Why do so few women pursue careers in engineering? Why aren’t there more female coders? I would argue that the biggest influence is an education system that forces children to choose between arts and science far too early. When I went to school in Scotland, I was able to combine arts and science, studying Maths, Physics and Chemistry, but also History, English, French and Russian at Higher Grade. If I had been forced to choose, I would probably have studied languages. Which is why I am heartened by the STEAM initiative in which creative arts become integral to teaching numerate disciplines: creativity in action.

In the end my objections to the IET video could be boiled down to one scene where a woman drives her motorbike without a helmet. Beauty over safety?

And then I found this photo, taken while commissioning a recycling plant in Portugal;  I must have taken off my goggles and hard hat for the camera.

Fiona 1993

Let’s face it, I am not the target audience for the IET video. I am from a generation which still faced legal discrimination but believed that if women in Europe were given equal opportunity then hard work and graft could overcome anything. I still believe that, and I suspect that many women already in the profession will find the IET video irritatingly playful and lacking in constructive substance.

But I must temper my grumpiness. On balance, if this high octane short video appeals to young people, alerts them to the variety of careers in engineering, if it leads you to find out more about the possibilities, then bravo – I support you.

Let’s keep talking.

Fiona Erskine’s debut thriller “The Chemical Detective” is published by the Oneworld imprint, Point Blank Books, available in all good bookshops and online here.


2 thoughts on “Women in Engineering

  1. I love your opinions on this very tricky topic. I have been involved in various ways over the years (oh, dear. It turns out to be decades….) in promoting engineering in particular and STEM in general to women and girls and absolutely agree.
    I think it is unhelpful if role models are (apparently) either ‘stars’ – often literally astronauts – or impossibly pretty. I am partly guilty of some of this myself in my work bringing out into the daylight some historical profiles of women in engineering – very often it is the women who rose to the top – as the others are very difficult to find out about unless they are still alive and you happen to meet them.
    There is an important place in all this for role models who are very ordinary looking girls and women doing mundane work in engineering. There is a good career to be had for the girl with few school certificates who does an NC or HNC and then works at the craft or technician level and never gets any higher. Just as there is for boys.
    I myself have never been anyone’s idea of an ‘oil painting’ and left school with 7 o-levels. I failed 2 core courses in my first year as a mature student of engineering but somehow staggered through to a 2.1 and then a PhD, which sadly I have never used fully.
    But STILL it was worthwhile having an engineering education, at ANY level. EVEN if one never uses it to earn a living, it raises the general population’s exposure to the logical mind of an engineer – a bit like the ‘herd effect’ of mass vaccination I suppose!

    Liked by 1 person

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