Smart Machines & Factories
One hundred years of female engineers
Published:  21 June, 2019

Anyone who has driven in a storm can attest to the importance of windshield wipers. This essential invention was created by Mary Anderson and became a fixture in most vehicles by 1916. While windscreen wipers, computer software, space station batteries and the circular saw can all be credited to female engineers, females in the engineering workforce are still few and far between.

As we celebrate International Women in Engineering Day on June 23, 2019, how can we drive female talent into the sector? Helen Marston, engineer at power resistor manufacturer, Cressall Resistors, discusses the role of women in engineering, both past and present.

According to the Women’s Engineering Society (WES), only twelve per cent of engineers in the United Kingdom are women — the lowest percentage in Europe. Although countries such as Latvia, Bulgaria and Cyprus have much smaller economies than the UK, they are home to a far more bounteous number of female engineers, with women making up almost 30 per cent of the engineering workforce.

Celebrating the centenary

Founded on June 23, 1919, WES was created to encourage women into roles such as munitions and other manufacturing work as men were drafted into the army. The group of influential women received government backing to support female engineers who, despite their wartime efforts, were under pressure to hand their positions back to men returning from the forces.

The society celebrates its hundredth year in 2019, and continues to support and encourage female engineers to achieve their potential. In this landmark year, what can be done to promote and nurture female engineers?

Tap into talent

Remarking on International Women’s Day, Hilary Clinton once exclaimed that “women are the largest untapped reservoir of talent in the world”. While we cannot argue that society hosts a wealth of talent from men and women alike, it rings true that females experience greater rebuke when striving for a career in STEM.

The industry is still gripped with the skills gap dilemma. In 2017, just 15.1 per cent of UK engineering graduates were women and around 20 per cent of A-level physics students are female — a figure that hasn’t changed in 25 years. It’s no secret that we need more skilled workers in order for the UK’s industry to thrive, and organisations need to act to help facilitate opportunities for new talent.

Harnessing potential

Offering student work placements provides a huge advantage to the industry, as they can develop practical skills and support the business with their enthusiasm and up-to-date academic knowledge. This often leads to full time positions with the placement organisation, helping young people build rewarding and successful careers.

I’m just one example of student placement success, after joining Cressall for a year during my third year at university. I was offered a full-time position post-study in the first six weeks of my placement and have worked at Cressall as a technical designer for almost fourteen years since graduating.

I knew from a young age that I wanted a career in the engineering industry. However, at school, I’d spoken to a careers advisor and they provided me with information that, had I followed it, would have prevented me from pursuing the career in engineering that I wanted.

Despite the well-publicised engineering skills gap, many students simply aren’t provided with the right information when it matters most. Providing teachers and careers advisors with the correct information will mean that students today won’t inadvertently be guided off the course of an engineering career.

Whether it’s the creation of fundamental inventions, or encouraging other women to pursue a career in the industry — we’d be lost without female engineers. As we celebrate the achievements and presence of talented women in the engineering industry, it is vital that we look to the future and act to inspire and support talented young engineers — male and female.