Women in engineering - What will it take to balance the equation
“It’s obvious that something drastic needs to be done,” says Stephanie Fernandes, principal policy advisor for education and innovation at the IET. “The onus is on employers to make working conditions as attractive as possible to women, with more flexible hours for example.”
In an effort to establish female role models, the IET organises the annual Young Woman Engineer of the Year award, which last year was won by Captain Charlotte Joyce, an aircraft engineering officer with 4 Regiment Army Air Corps.
The IET's Young Woman Engineer of the Year award 2011
Another initiative, the IET Faraday programme, provides teaching resources and in-school activity days to encourage children to take an interest in engineering, and Fernandes says care is taken to ensure that its content appeals to both genders. She emphasises the need to “dispel the myth that engineering is all greasy hands and dirty overalls” and, surprised that 25 per cent of companies surveyed for the IET report said they see no benefit in engaging with schools, urges greater interaction between the classroom and industry. “This would make jobs real for girls, showing them what engineers do on a day-to-day basis. It is a vibrant, dynamic profession and there is so much scope in terms of career roles — for example, we are in the midst of the first digital Olympics and engineering has played a big part in that.”
One company that offers a wide range of job opportunities is Babcock International Group, the UK’s leading provider of engineering support services in areas including defence, energy, telecommunications and transport. Employing more than 27,000 people worldwide, Babcock has experienced considerable growth in recent years, with revenues increasing from £377.9 million in 2003 to £3 billion in 2011, fuelling demand for skilled professionals. And like other companies in the sector, including National Grid, BMW and Network Rail, Babcock is keen to encourage more female engineers at all levels.
“We aim to promote engineering within all our communities,” says chief executive Peter Rogers. “Current and prospective employees — regardless of their gender or ethnicity — should feel comfortable walking through our doors and should enjoy the experience once they’re here. We’re working hard towards that goal every day.”
The company provides both apprenticeships and graduate schemes to deliver industry-specific training to new recruits. “Last year one in five of our graduate trainees were women and this year we anticipate that it will be one in four,” says graduate recruitment manager Patricia Downes.
“We are aware that in order to bring more women into engineering we need to consider how we advertise and promote our job opportunities,” she adds. “We have sought out universities with the greatest gender diversity to ensure that we have access to the best and most talented graduates available. In addition, we have recently established a reference group of more than 400 women within the company that allows us to identify role models as well as specific activities that we can undertake to attract female applicants.”
Working At Babcock
Systems and equipment engineer Kate Millard joined the graduate scheme at Babcock six years ago, following an MEng at the University of Leeds. Based at Bristol, she works in the Marine and Technology division on submarine weapon handling and launch systems. During her degree she specialised in medical engineering — one area that does attract women — but became interested in defence when she joined the University Officer Training Corps.
“I was fascinated by how weapons find their targets and the systems that make them work,” says Millard. “What I like most about my job is that it allows me to use a range of different skills: as well as physics and maths it involves communication and interpretation, talking to other teams and being required to see the bigger picture. I have to ensure that changes to one system in a piece of equipment, such as hydraulics or electrics, don’t affect others in terms of performance, noise levels or safety, for example.”
One of three women in a team of 15, Millard does not feel that working in a male-dominated environment presents any particular problems. Senior engineer Lynsey Bain is similarly positive about the experience despite being the only woman among 30 colleagues at Rosyth in Scotland — although she feels it may put many other women off joining the profession. “It’s a shame that most girls don’t even seem to consider engineering as a career,” she says. “Schools need to promote the diversity of the engineering sector and show how physics and maths can be applied to jobs.”
Bain, who also entered Babcock through the graduate scheme, following a mechanical engineering degree at the University of Edinburgh, is part of a team providing marine structural support for both naval vessels and commercial projects. She is responsible for managing the technical aspect of tasks as well as carrying out engineering analysis and design.
“I find problem-solving stimulating and enjoy the satisfaction of completing a design to be installed on a ship,” she says. “When I joined Babcock six years ago the company was not as big as it is today but I was attracted by the opportunity the graduate training scheme offered to gain a wide range of experience and work towards chartered status. I was impressed by its level of support and commitment to career development.”
Both Bain and Millard were motivated in their career choice by a love of maths and physics at school, but Millard feels that these subjects are often misrepresented by the media: “People in the public eye often say they can’t do maths as if it’s something to be proud of, but it’s required in many professions. I think a lot of girls are influenced by cultural pressure to seem less intelligent than they are, taking their role models from films and television programmes that represent women mainly as posed and glamorous or cute and scatty.”
Project manager Stephanie Whiteley was less certain of her career path after leaving school with A-levels, but specialised in procurement after joining a manufacturing company whose training scheme offered the chance to gain experience in several different business departments. Having later worked in the transport sector at Thales UK, she joined Babcock five years ago to deliver telecoms projects for Network Rail. With two young children aged three and 18 months, she now works four days a week, and says that this flexibility is widely available to Babcock employees who wish to take advantage of it.
Proud of her ability to provide a successful service to her company’s client, Whiteley admits that managing a group of men, including engineers, designers and various other professionals, can be a challenge. “As a woman
you have more to prove and sometimes you have to be thick-skinned, but once you’ve shown you can deliver results they think you’re fantastic.”
According to Rachel Robilliard, a nuclear facilities project manager at Babcock’s Devonport dockyard, being in a minority can be an advantage because “everyone knows who you are and if you do well it helps you stand out”.
She admits that the dockyard environment can be a little daunting at first — “it’s like working on a building site” — but says that one of the best things about her job is the “close-knit community” of employees at Devonport, where
she organises and oversees the maintenance of facilities that support nuclear submarines, such as docks and cranes. “It’s a very friendly organisation without a high turnover of staff.”
Over a decade working for Babcock, Robilliard has seen an increase in the number of female engineers among her colleagues — there are now 10 in her team of 30 — and notes practical improvements too. “When I started, the work clothes were designed only for men. I’m tiny, so they were much too big for me, but now the standard garments are made to fit women as well.”
Robilliard is evidence that school liaison schemes such as those promoted by the IET and WISE (Women into Science, Engineering and Construction) can help lead girls towards engineering careers: “I liked physics at school and was inspired by a week-long camp at the University of Strathclyde, where we were challenged to build machines such as a sweet dispenser and an electronic listening device.” She went on to take a degree in electrical and electronic engineering at Edinburgh Napier University, followed by a masters in safety engineering at Lancaster University, before joining a graduate training scheme at GEC-Marconi.
“Many girls think that engineering is just spanner work but it’s a massively varied field,” says Robilliard. “My job does involve some technical stuff, and I did more of that in the early years of my career, but now it’s mostly about strategic planning, making financial decisions and managing people and business processes.”
It is with insight from the company’s female engineers that Babcock’s group director of organisation and development, Kevin Goodman, hopes to attract those of the future. “As well as general initiatives in conjunction with schools and the Smallpeice Trust,” he says, “we are currently conducting a survey to allow women within our business to help us develop recruitment programmes. This will culminate in a conference, hosted by our chief executive, when the group will present their proposals to ensure that we recruit the very best into our business.”