The following is my script for the brief opening comments I gave at the Cambridge Festival of Ideas event “Is it a feminist position to encourage women to work in male-dominated fields?” on Monday October 28th.
I did not become an engineer because I was a feminist. I became a feminist because I am an engineer. I didn’t start out interested in, or even aware of, the whole “women in STEM” issue. I found it when I got here.
I became an engineer because it was the natural choice for a kid who was interested in math and science, and it never occurred to me not to become an engineer just because I was female. In some ways I was extremely lucky—growing up with a father who worked in a technology company was a bonus, and he helped set me up with mentors from an early age. Some reports have suggested that young engineering students in the UK overwhelmingly tend to have a parent, other close family member, or other close family friend who is an engineer. So that’s important and gives me a clue as to where to direct my feminist activities to improving the proportion of women in STEM, and in Engineering in particular: we need to educate school-age girls about what engineering is. Because girls who know about engineering DO become engineers. It’s not that there’s some inherent disinterest. We just don’t tell enough young women about how great it is to have an engineering career.
The first time I really thought about being a female engineer—as opposed to just an engineer—was when I was applying to University, and my alma mater highlighted how great it was that they had 25% female engineering students in their undergraduate population. In the 20 years since I was an undergraduate, that percentage has remained stubbornly low, hovering between 20-25% across the US and about half that on average in the UK. The numbers get worse as you go up in rank, with proportionally fewer women in academic posts than would be predicted from the numbers obtaining doctorates, and even fewer women in senior posts compared with junior ones. In terms of engineers working in industry, the numbers for the UK are particularly appalling, with the engineering workforce being only 7-8% female. That’s significantly lower than the number studying engineering at university, which helps us identify a second problem.
We have to ensure that the women we do train as engineers stay in the engineering workforce. If the environment is hostile, women will leave to find other jobs. There are four key factors that have been identified as barriers to women in their careers, in order: (1) age—early career women have a hard time; (2) lack of role models; (3) motherhood; and (4) lack of experience. There is little we can do about age or lack of experience, but we can work seriously hard on providing appropriate role models for young women. We can also try to force institutional change regarding the return to work following maternity leave, and try and make leaving the workforce at that point a less attractive option.
So in terms of feminist activism, I don’t want the number of female engineers to go up because it’s seen as a feminist choice to enter a field in which we are so poorly represented. I want the number of female engineers to go up because more girls hear about engineering when they’re young and realize what a great career it would be for them. And I want the number of female engineers to stay up because we’ve made working in engineering a happy and comfortable thing, allowing more women to have a rewarding career in the field.