It’s different for girls

31 July 2014

Statistics presented at the National Women in Engineering Day Conference raised some alarming questions, and some inspiring answers

On 23 June I attended an engineering conference in London where 96 per cent of the delegates were female. Having been a journalist in this industry for 12 years, I’m used to seeing a sea of suits (the trouser variety) at engineering events and never having to queue for the loo during coffee breaks. 
The event was the inaugural National Women in Engineering Day (NWED) conference. It was inspiring to be amongst so many brilliant female engineers, who work in a variety of industries and roles.

A large part of the conference dealt with education and how to get more girls to consider engineering as a career. However, something kept cropping up that I hadn’t considered to be a potential barrier before — parents.

The keynote speaker Jenny Willott, Minister for Women and Equality, said that raising the aspirations of young women to pursue careers in engineering is something that she feels very passionately about. But she’s discovered that it’s not just young girls whose aspirations need to be raised.

“Parents of boys are nine per cent more likely to perceive a career in engineering as desirable [for their sons] than parents of girls [are for their daughters].” That is the biggest gap in any career. So we need to start with parents and not just children,” she said.

This was reiterated a little later when one of the conference’s token men took to the stage - Professor John Perkins, chief scientific advisor at The Department for Business, Innovation & Skills (BIS). In his discussion of the findings of his governmental report — Professor John Perkins’ review of engineering skills — he mentioned how parents’ attitudes need to change.

“For parents, engineering is positively the worst career choice for their daughters even though it may be a good thing for their sons to pursue. So a huge amount of work has to be done to persuade parents and indeed teachers that these days engineering is not a dirty, smokestack industry,” he stated.

One young female who relayed how this barrier almost cost her her vocation was Jade Aspinall, an apprentice currently in her third year of a four year engineering apprenticeship programme at MBDA, a global missile systems company. She’s even an award-winning apprentice having been bestowed Apprentice of the Year at the Best of British Engineering Semta Skills Awards earlier this year.

She started off her talk by saying, “When I was six my mom wanted me to be a ballerina, I wanted to play rugby league. When I was ten she bought me a pram, I used it as a goal post.

When I was 14 my teachers wanted me to do textiles because I was good at it but I wanted to do electronics because I enjoyed it. When I was 18 I was told women don’t go into engineering and this year I was awarded the best apprentice of the year award.”

Aspinall’s parents did not want her to study engineering at university (law was their preferred choice) let alone pursue an engineering apprenticeship scheme. The truth is, she may not be in the position she’s in today if she hadn’t ‘rebelled’ and gone against their wishes.

This all reminded me of an article I read in the June issue of MOG — a magazine for the Morgan enthusiast.

Not my usual read but I picked it up following my wonderfully enjoyable visit to the Morgan Motor Company (this issue’s cover story) recently. The article that jumped out was a piece on Prudence Fawcett — a Le Mans contestant and something of a legend among Morgan fans.

Prudence Fawcett competed in the Le Mans 24-Hour race in 1938 in a Morgan 4-4

Born in 1913 in Derbyshire, she became interested in cars through her uncle, a racing enthusiast who introduced her to many in the motoring fraternity. A career high was competing in arguably one of the biggest events in motorsport — the Le Mans 24-Hour.

It was 1938 and she was racing in a Morgan 4-4. Although the car suffered a few issues it still managed to cross the line in an impressive 13th position, having completed 164 laps covering some 1,373 miles and averaging 57.2mph.

But Prudence’s parents, her mother in particular, did not share in her jubilation and was recorded as saying, “such an exploit has bought shame and embarrassment on the family, indeed, no one of our class goes motor racing.”

The article doesn’t state it, but you can’t imagine this snooty lady, for that’s what she sounds like, being supportive of Prudence’s career choice.

It’s a shame really but at least it didn’t stop her. She married a keen motorist and enjoyed the thrills of motor racing for the rest of her life, passing it on to her children too. I’m sure granny wasn’t pleased.


Comments on this article:

What a great little post Tanya - I'm lucky enough to be a parent of one boy & one girl, however I do not see any difference in my thoughts or opinions of what career my son or daughter should consider [they are only 8 & 10]. I would be more than happy if my daughter wanted to pursue a career in engineering [or a similar field] and would actively encourage it if she showed an interest. There are far too many girls [as we are talking about girls] that want to pursue a career in hair & beauty, or think that X-Factor/reality shows are a [good] 'career' choice and see engineering as a boys thing & very uncool or not what a girl should be doing - so it's only one potential future female engineer, but I will be ensuring my daughter is fully aware of all possible career choices, and that although not apparently the right thing for girls to do, that a career in engineering can be fun, exciting and financially rewarding - I don't often comment on posts, but this has really struck a chord with me!

Posted by Nick Harvey on Thursday 31 2014 at 12:19 PM

I agree with Nick. Great article. My personal story here begins with my two older sisters and my mother and father. My mum was bolshi to say the least. 7th of eight children and daughter to a mining family, my grandfather repaired telvisions and wireless sets as one of his many hobbies. With 5 scrapping brothers and a battleship of a mother My mum brought up my sisters to believe that they could take on any challange of a man and give birth, thus making weomen the superior gender. Hard to argue with that. And if you did you'd probably have gotten a punch in the face for it, as I can testify! On my dad's side, my great grandfather was a builder, miner, butcher, farrier and clogger. My uncle became a cabinate maker and was something of a hero to my dad who was ten years his younger and had made him a wooden bicycle and a wooden instamatic camera. My grand father was also a miner and pretty handy with a bricklayers trowel too. My dad went into textiles, becoming a maintenance engineer known colloquially as a "tackler", he built up his own collection of machine tools and made all manner of things, mostly more machines and tools. Growing up my dad encouraged my two sisters and I to go into the shed and "work" making the distinction that such a place was not a place to play. My eldest sister didn't show much interest, but my notably 'Tom boy' sister Kay became enthraled. She developed an ambition to become a architect, but alas her academic achievement was insufficient. Having taken woodwork as one of her options, she went on to complete a successfull apprenticeship as a high quality cabinate maker. After getting married and having her family, she went back to work as a van driver, later taking her HGV test and now drives lorries. In her spare time she develops property, doing the plastering, plumbing, wiring, laying bricks and landscaping the gardens. Now on my second marriage (I'm not the easiest chap to live with... I know, hard to believe isn't it? ) I've got two sons, two twin girls, a step daughter and step son and had two step daughters to care for in my first marriage. If through that I've learned anything about children it's that as a parent, you're not really in charge at all. The children decide for themselves who they are, what they want to do and how they're going to go and do it. Parents are just there for taxi service, provide unlimited funds, someone to vent and rant at and to fix all the broken stuff in their lives. So really, as there going to do whatever they want anyway, you may as well encourage them to be the best they can at whatever that may be. Both my sons can work a lathe. The fifteen year old is intent on a career in film and television as a writer/director. My five year old just wants to be an "inbentor" and comes up with all sorts of weird and wonderfull creations out of the recycling box. So I guess this maker

Posted by Lloyd Pennington on Thursday 31 2014 at 03:31 PM

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