International Women in Engineering Day: Shape the World
Yasmin Ali, BEIS
Engineers dream up, design, build and maintain the world around us. This includes our built environment, our energy systems, and the products we use daily, from toothpaste to smart phones and everything in between. It makes sense to me that those shaping the world should represent the diversity of its inhabitants, yet one half of the population, women, make up only 12% of the UK’s engineering workforce.
Engineering is a misunderstood profession. When I give career talks at schools or attend career fairs, I often strike up conversation with students by asking what they think engineers do. The most common answer is ‘fix cars’. While this may be true for a handful of engineers, it is a huge misrepresentation of the variety of jobs and sectors engineers work in.
Increasing public understanding of engineering and highlighting the contributions of engineers, especially female engineers, should help to attract a more diverse cohort. In my own role as an energy innovation project manager, I support clean energy technologies, contributing to the myriad of solutions needed to tackle climate change, and enabling a sustainable future.
If you happen to be a fan of the Shard in London, you may praise Renzo Piano, its architect, but let’s also acknowledge Roma Agrawal, one of the structural engineers behind this iconic building. Looking back in time to 1928, we credit the Scottish scientist Alexander Fleming with the discovery of penicillin, let’s also thank Margaret Hutchinson Rousseau, the chemical engineer who enabled the scale-up of the production of the antibiotic, saving millions of lives.
Today, 23rd June, is the anniversary of the foundation of the Women’s Engineering Society back in 1919, and a fitting date to celebrate International Women in Engineering day. I encourage you to take a moment to recognise the contributions of women engineers, and to discover more about the people who shape the world around you.
The IPO - supporting our engineers
Eleanor Wade: Senior Patent Examiner (civil engineering), Prospect Vice-President
As part of its commitment to being a brilliant place to work, the senior leadership at the IPO work with the unions and with employee networks like the Women's Inclusive Network to recognise the issues different groups face at work and ensure under-represented voices are heard. I am a Patent Examiner working on building and construction technology and union rep for Prospect (one of the unions at the IPO alongside FDA and PCS). I'd been involved in a lot of this work through the union - just before lockdown we took part in an International Women's Day event organised by the IPO with the Women's Inclusive Network. The event had speakers, information stands and activities to raise awareness of the issues affecting women at work, to facilitate supportive workplace connections between women who may work in teams with very few (or no) other women. I have valued the connections I've made through these events over the years as my team has been male dominated throughout my career and now many of the women (me included) work from home so we miss each other more often than not.
But all of a sudden everyone's working from home and we can't do things the way we used to. How do we keep progressing these agendas when we don't have the tools we know work? How can we create support networks when we can't meet up?
First of all, we have to. Coronavirus is not a leveller, its impact has been felt more severely by many already disadvantaged groups. We know that BAME people are at greater risk from the disease, and we know that women have been disproportionately impacted by the increased domestic workload brought by lock down and school closures. At the same time, chances to talk to colleagues about what they are doing to cope, to share ideas and just to let someone else know how you're feeling are harder to come by. So support networks such as the Women's Inclusive Network we have at IPO or a similar support group within your own organisation, your trade unions, are more important than ever.
We might not have the tools we're used to, but we do have online substitutes and new tools made possible by technology. At the IPO many teams are running regular online catchups and informal meetups. Prospect has been running regular webinars which bring members together to learn or share experiences. This won't be perfect for everyone, but I hope that if we keep in touch online, if our networks and our unions continue to be visible, to feel present in people's lives, then when picking up the phone is what we really need, it'll feel easier.
Hazel Thorpe: Senior Patent Examining (civil engineering), chair of the IPO’s Women’s Inclusive Network
The Women's Inclusive Network at the Intellectual Property Office is a thriving network which promotes women's wellbeing and career development, and gender equality for all. We are focused on making systematic changes to reduce our Gender Pay Gap, which is exacerbated by having a high proportion of highly-paid STEM employees - the majority of whom are male, in line with the typical UK STEM demographic. We want this to change and we're supporting work in the IPO designed to affect this. For instance, activities to reduce unconscious bias in the STEM recruitment process, outreach to develop girls engagement with STEM in our local area and supporting the career development of employees through skills building and mentoring.
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