National Women in Engineering Day

Earlier this week I was asked to speak to a group of Year 10 girls (aged 14-15) about careers in Engineering, in honour of National Women in Engineering Day. I was in two minds, mostly because I only had 24 hours to think about it but also, because I often wonder about the impact that these National Days have. Why that day? Would I not be able to present the same message on any other day just as effectively?! Anyway, after Tim Hunt’s comments about women working in laboratories, and since it provided me with the opportunity to speak, I decided to put myself into the lionesses’ den.

I asked the girls to start by writing down the first word that sprung to their mind when I said “Engineering” and they came up with the following:beforeAt the end of the half hour I asked them to do the same exercise and these are the words they wrote:

after

Now, I don’t remember mentioning curry or telling them it was boring, but the rest of this represents a reasonable result to me. During the session, one girl quite rightly asked me to explain the link between maps and Engineering. I only hope my answer was convincing because this is a bit of a swampy area not only in her head but mine too.

Fundamentally, as an Engineer I apply scientific/mathematical methods to solve problems that people have every day and, in the process I hope make the world a better place. So if you want to label me as an Engineer then please go ahead (I have an Engineering Doctorate after all!), even if I don’t always define myself as one. You’ll just have to forgive me from putting on a different hat from time to time. For me, however, discussions about Engineering do not acknowledge often enough that humans are at its core. And sometimes, Tim Hunt, humans fall in love and cry. Engineering is problem solving by people for people and this is where I strongly believe that women can and should contribute to Engineering projects/teams, aside from the variety of interesting (dare I say it, sometimes fun!) work it offers.

A significant amount of my work as a Usability Engineer (if you want to call me an Engineer!) involves communication: translating science into words that non-experts can understand, asking “So What?”, working in teams, finding common understanding of complex problems, and translating what people say they require into technology that they often use in totally tangential ways to their original needs. I know there are many, many men out there who do these things very well but please allow me to 1) say that women can also be especially strong in these areas, and 2) think it’s unfortunate that, as the girls demonstrated yesterday, they aren’t typically associated with Engineering or appear in job descriptions labelled with the word Engineer.

I’m not an Engineer now because I sat down at the age of 15 and decided that I wanted to be an Engineer. This is what I really wanted to tell that girl. It just happens that what part of what I love to do, and am now lucky enough to be paid to do, is called Engineering by some people. I hope that the girls I met yesterday (feel they can) pursue whatever dreams they have anyway, whether those dreams involve Engineering or otherwise.

(If it’s of interest to others giving a similar talk, I highly recommend the resources on the Tomorrow’s Engineers website.)

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