Life, Women

Debunking the myths of being a female in engineering

The 20th century was a period of great achievement for gender equality. The women’s suffrage movement in the early 1900s won the right to vote in 1918, Thatcher was voted in as the first female Prime Minister in 1979 and the 1985 Equal Pay Act allowed women to be paid (in principal at least) the same as men for work of equal measure. Yet it seemed that these achievements somewhat stagnated as we entered the hustling bustling 21st century – with the new era of the millennials and generation Y crowd. Rather than the trajectory going up, it has seemed to spiral lower than before.

Why do I say this? Well, we are approaching a quarter of the way through the 21st century yet still only 12.5% of women in the UK are in any STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) roles and this proportion has increased by a miniscule 0.2% since 2012 (n.d.). Where is this diversity in technology gone?

Women represent an untapped talent, that if utilised to the full capacity in STEM roles like their male counterparts, has magnanimous potential for both economic and social growth. Engaging and recruiting diverse talent is essential, not just for any company, but for an entire nation to harness and fully realise it’s innovation and growth. American billionaire, Warren Buffet says;

“If obvious benefits flow from helping the male component of the workforce achieve its potential, why in the world wouldn’t you want to include its counterpart? We’ve seen what can be accomplished when we use 50% of our human capacity. If you visualize what 100% can do, you’ll join me as an unbridled optimist about America’s future.”

I may not be able to explore all the endless professions one can pursue in STEM, however, being an engineer myself, I would like to use this opportunity to debunk some absurd myths I have heard in my time. Let’s go through them one by one:

  1. You must be an A* student to even think about applying for engineering

Getting all A*’s at A-Levels and reading for a degree is not the only way into engineering! There are a variety of different routes to get into the profession; be it through apprenticeship schemes or diplomas. In fact many companies have a variety of schemes on offer for school leavers from ages as young as 16! In 2015, multinational defence and aerospace company BAE offered 400 apprenticeship schemes across the country. Last year, rail company Network Rail offered 140 schemes and so forth. Alhamdulillah, the level of opportunity available in this country is endless. All you truly need to become an engineer is the drive to succeed, penchant for hard work and an optimistic imagination, and nothing is impossible.

In 1933, Egyptian born, Lotfia El-Nadi made headlines in becoming the first African Arab women in the world to earn a pilot’s licence. Lotfia was not from an upper-class background with professional parents to back her with a bank of money, neither was she overqualified. Rather, her work ethic and determination meant that she worked part time for the flying school as a receptionist, simply in exchange for flying lessons. Lotfia found another route into what she wanted to do and pursued it with utmost determination and resolve.

2. You work with nerds who build machines and fix engines everyday

This one small aspect of what our actual day to day jobs entail seems to unfortunately form the typecast of the image that many of us have of what engineers actually do. The amount of times I have told people that “…no, I’m not a mechanic”, or “…no, I can’t fix the brake disks on your car…” is exasperating.

Stop for a moment and realise the fact that engineering is a discipline that is all around us. Everything you touch, see, use, or hear, has all in some shape or form been “engineered”.

It’s not as simple as the stereotypical hard hats, steel toe boots with screw drivers and a cigarette in our hands working away on a construction site. Not at all. Engineering is the foundation for imagination and innovation to combine with practicality to advance ourselves and our environment. How do we make the things around us better? If the process to build a car takes 3 days, how can we make it 1.5 days with minimal waste? If you must keep pricking holes in diabetic patients’ fingers to draw blood for sugar level checks, how can we use today’s technology to eliminate this practice and make it a pain free process for the patient?

The first hard drive to have more than 1 GB capacity in the 80’s was the size of a fridge, and now you can store a 64GB USB in your pocket. If this is not engineering, then what is?

3. Engineering is too male-dominated, you will be only woman there

Okay, so sometimes this might be the case, but doesn’t mean there aren’t any at all. There would be times where I would be the only women in a meeting with 20 other males, but there would also be times where I would be one of 5 women in that same meeting. There is no hard and fast rule. And if there was, please ask yourself, why is this even an issue? Why should your gender stop you from being able to sit at the table where some of the biggest innovations and advancements can be born? We have a responsibility towards our future generations not to let this form a road block. In 2012, recruitment company Roevin published results with 57% of popular opinion showing that the industry’s reputation was the biggest barrier for girls to even consider a career in engineering (Engineering & girls?, n.d.). Be the change to this and break these gender stigmas that have plagued this industries reputation.

One of the most enlightening things I saw when starting as a 22-year-old fresh graduate in an engineering was the presence of other women in my company; already present and breaking these barriers. And as I progressed through my career, I would beam with pride every time I would see more female graduates & apprentices enter our company.

How can we hold the banner high for #WomenEmpowerment and raise a racket at #BeBoldForChange protests on Women’s Day if we aren’t ourselves raising the bar for our incoming generations?

4. Can’t have a work life balance (with family) as a women engineer

We are lucky to live during a phase of great focus on improving employee life. Some of the top engineering and technology firms around the world are competing for the most generous policies to support their employees, in all matters from maternity leave to compassionate leave. With the advent of “Agile Working” upon us, many STEM companies are actively looking for quality of work rather than quantity. It’s not the hours that you log in and out, rather it’s your ability to achieve and surpass the tasks at hand. In automotive, we call it “value added time”.

Examples such as Deloitte’s Agile Working policy, which allows its employees the power to choose where, when and how they want to work. Or Ford Motor Company, who grant 52 weeks PAID maternity leave. Not only that, Ford also offer in-house maternity workshops for their pregnant employees as well as assigning them a specific HR associate for the duration of their pregnancy! From my personal experience, when my father got ill earlier this year, my employers at the time gave me 4 weeks’ worth compassionate leave to be able to look after him, as well as continuously offered any additional support I would require.

It is evident that working practices and regulations in today’s time are much more reflective of the importance of work-life balance than they were even 15 years ago. A happy employee is a productive employee. A 2011 Harvard Business Review article stated that the level of happiness has a profound impact on workers’ creativity, productivity, commitment and collegiality.

To be able work for a living is a blessing within itself not to mention the endless opportunities we have available to us if we are willing to pursue. To the parents with younger daughters reading this, please ensure that they are given a fair chance from a young age, to understand the scope of all the opportunities available to them. Do not let subconscious cultural biases form their career paths. One of my favourite extracts from Du’a Kumayl is where Imam Ali (a.s) says that one of the most complete gifts of God is a life based on knowledge, knowledge which gives life to the soul.

Thus, moving forward, let us harness knowledge to create an environment in our homes and in our workplaces which will work towards eradicating such myths, be it in any profession, let alone STEM. Let us work together to eradicate these myths that subconsciously hold many of our girls back from realising their full capacity of careers they have an equal right to pursue.

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