Engineering is a highly valued industry in the UK, contributing 26% of our GDP to our economy. It’s an industry which requires analytical and creative skills to solve problems, so having a diverse range people working in the field is essential for continued growth. Yet, it’s reported that the percentage of female engineers in the UK was only in 11% of the workforce, worse still, that’s the lowest number of women in engineering within the whole of Europe.
At The Automation Engineer, we’re interested in understanding what influences female engineers to take up their profession. By understanding the reasons why we hope that we can encourage more women to get involved in such a varied and interested subject area. To do so, we enlisted the help of three female engineers working at the R&D centre at Control Techniques in Newtown.
Kate McDougall is Safety Project Manager at Control Techniques. After specialising in software she moved into safety systems and eventually that led her to automation where she works with “a wonderful team of committed engineers”.
Yingyi Kuang is an applied software engineer who works as an intermediary between drive hardware and software. After studying in China, Yingyi studied an MSc in Sheffield before moving Control Techniques.
Rachael Ferguson joined Control Techniques through the E3 academy. While studying she was able to trail working in two separate departments over the summer period, eventually settling in the software testing team.
What we learned
One of the key themes we discovered was the importance of status when studying to being an engineer. Yingyi Kuang informed us that in China engineers are valued as highly as doctors, which is no real surprise. In fact, it is so competitive that many chose to further their education in countries like the UK where businesses are crying out for employees. Mrs Kuang said at undergraduate level half of her cohorts were female engineers. When studying postgraduate at the University of Sheffield there were only a few women on her course, but all were Chinese.
There are lots of different aspects of engineering, it’s not just about climbing under machinery to make repairs, although that’s one angle. In fact, many engineers they enjoy the luxury of grease-free hands throughout their career.
Every one of our female engineer interviewees said it was the unique mix of maths, design, technology and science that attracted them to a career in engineering. “Solving problems and coming up with real-world solutions”, as Rachel Ferguson put it. That is something which resonates with all our interviewees; while many jobs are detached from the reality, engineering is rooted in creating solutions. So it has a real feel-good factor about it.
Every one of our interviewees was inspired by someone close to them, be that their own family members who are engineers or a passionate teacher. Usually, deep-down feelings towards a vocation come from a formative age, the beginning stages of hands-on experience. But that’s not always the case. Kate McDougall was lucky to visit the University of Leeds for a ‘Women in Engineering’ day taster course. She said: “The Leeds course I attended was pivotal, until that point I just knew I liked maths and physics and I didn’t know what a career in engineering meant.”
It’s not so surprising that engineering is a subject that grows on you, it is, after all, a multidisciplinary subject, and that means it’s a subject connected to lots of other subjects. But what all of our interviewees stated was that they loved the creative side of the subject mixed with the feeling of satisfaction knowing you’ve created a robust solution.
Closely connected to point four but probably the most profound of all our findings was how all our female engineers were unsure of where they wanted to go with their studies. It’s pretty hard to imagine that anyone could have a vision of what they want to be before they’ve really experienced all the options. And this is what we found also. Attending open days and really getting into the detail of what an engineering course is about is crucial. The reason why is simple: there are lots of opportunities in engineering and it is a wide subject area.
If you’re reading this article and thinking about your next steps in education, we highly recommend any women studying maths or science to visit some open days and get hands-on experience. For those already studying in their first year at University but still unsure of their future career options, we recommend visiting the E3 academy website. If you’ve not heard of it, E3 Academy supports the development of young people through work placements and scholarships. At Control Techniques around 20% of applicants are female engineering students which far exceeds the national average.