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Seven myths of being a female engineer

Updated Thursday, 7 March 2019
There is a mountain of myths surrounding the engineering profession – particularly the role of women within the industry.

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The engineer is commonly depicted as a burly boiler man in oily overalls (on the one hand) or a reclusive, introverted computer programmer (on the other). In reality, engineering is a hugely diverse and exciting sector with amazing opportunities available to women. 

We debunk some of the myths and misconceptions in the industry. 

1. Women aren’t strong enough to be engineers

Diana Thomas McEwen is Chief Technician in the Dyson Centre for Engineering Design at Cambridge University. For her, one of the biggest myths of the profession is “that you have to be big and strong to work in these sectors.” She goes on: “I’m not big. I’m not strong. But I can certainly do just as much as my other, male colleagues.” Rather than strength, she believes “imagination is the biggest key” for making a success of it. Robyn Moates, Electronics Engineer at Green Energy Options, asserts how little physical exertion is required from her role too: “It’s all indoor, mostly computer-based work, or sitting in a lab working with components.” Being an engineer is not necessarily about brawn.

Electronic engineer Only 11% of professional engineers are female (Engineering UK 2015)


2. To be an engineer, you have to get your hands dirty (literally)

“Engineering is not just engines,” says Elizabeth McCaig, Senior Specialist, Structures Rule Development team at Lloyd's Register. “And it's not just getting grease and applying tools. I work in an office. I haven't been covered in grease in years for my job.” Female engineers often get told that they don’t “look” like an engineer. But in an industry with such a vast array of roles – from computer software and spacecraft design to nanotechnology and bridge construction – what does an engineer look like? You don’t have to wear overalls to excel in the sector.



Mini Documentary

Women in engineering – Elizabeth McCaig

Elizabeth McCaig:

There's not a single thing in modern life that would possible without engineering. We eat safe food because of engineers, the clothes we wear were brought in by ship. It's so much more important that it's getting credit for.

Gender dynamic of my degree was quite...male. I think in my third years of the BEng (Bachelor of Engineering) there were about seventy students in my year and three of us were female. Girls get discouraged from doing engineering in some cases actively discouraged from engineering they get told to go into medicine instead and when they're children and they're playing with blocks and Lego they get told to no go play with dolls instead they're not supposed to play with the boys toys if we don't stop discouraging them from the very basics and fundamentals they're never going to be interested engineering is not just engines and it's not just getting grease in a plane tools it can be and there are people who enjoy that side of things and they like getting stuck in and getting mucky in and that's great and you can do that if you want to but you don't have to. I work in an office, I haven't been covered in grease in years for my job people think there's just civil engineering or mechanical engineering they think of the bridges, they think of cars and there's so many different engineering disciplines. You've got things related to supplying power, then you've got things to do with Health, there's all sorts of medical engineering disciplines you can have things related to computers, IT, all that side of it. Food engineering is a massive area, all the factories have been designed by engineers and then infrastructure.

Infrastructure is a massive one, I don't know if you've seen The Crossrail documentaries on the BBC, they're amazing, I reckon. I highly recommend it to anyone. They're just...The way that they've built Crossrail and they've brought through underneath London I think there was one where they were within a few inches of existing infrastructure and it could have all gone catastrophically wrong but it didn't and that's the testament to the skill of the engineers who've built in the Crossrail project and that's not even the full gamut of engineering disciplines.

-End of opinion piece-

3. Women are too timid to be engineers

Historically, female engineers might have struggled to hold their own in a room full of male colleagues. Diana Thomas McEwen knows, first hand, that this simply isn’t the case any more. “I see everyday… more women coming through that have the right attitude and have the right confidence,” Diana says. They are able to “stand up to their male counterparts or colleagues or peers” but “also have the right opinions, that perhaps would shock other people.” She says, in her experience, an older generation might sometimes want to “flatten these opinions” – but female engineers have learnt to speak out and be heard.


4.  Women aren’t as good at science, technology or maths

According to a statistical paper published by the Women’s Engineering Society, “Girls are now more likely than boys to achieve high A*-B grades across nearly all STEM GCSE subjects (sometimes spectacularly so, e.g. in D&T where 49.9% of female entrants achieve A*-B compared to 29.4% of male entrants, and in Engineering, where the respective figures are 36.8% girls and 17.3% boys achieving A*-B grades).” It’s true that the proportion of girls pursuing these subjects further drops off dramatically, but the above stats suggest cultural norms and other factors are to blame, rather than a lack of ability.

Female engineers Only 14.2% of those who achieve first degrees in engineering are female (Royal Academy of Engineering, 2015)

5.  Women are good at soft skills, not technical ones

Technical ability is not defined by gender. “The stereotypical fact”, Diana Thomas McEwen says, “is women don’t know anything about engineering, which is simply not true. Absolutely not true.” Crucially, too, it’s a myth that being an engineer doesn’t require what is defined as “soft skills”: self-awareness, empathy, self-control, and an ability to listen. You can’t be a successful engineer without communicating effectively with clients and colleagues, working well in a team and remaining nimble and adaptable.


Mini Documentary

Women in engineering - Diana

Diana Thomas-McEwen:

I would say the qualities for a good engineer are imagination, massive imagination. Not just on the design aspects but also on materials, equipment and not just trying to think down one small avenue, thinking about the wider picture. I see every day more women in, more women coming through that have the right attitude and have the right confidence to be able to not necessarily stand up to their male counterparts or colleagues or peers but also have the right opinions, though perhaps would shock other people but, the elder generation in my experience, doesn't mean that it's all round, it tends to want to flatten these opinions. Which can perhaps cause some a certain amount of problems when you're a female, a young female engineer going and working with an elder generation. They don't always tend to take notice of you because the stereotypical factors: women don't know anything about engineering. Which is simply not true, there needs to be less emphasis on traditional methods for more female engineers to be wanting to be involved. There need to be an emphasis on everything that is about engineering, even in small stuffs it needs to seem like a much wider diversity and we need to lose these stereotypes of men in engineering and providing more confidence. So seeing other female engineers actively doing something is a great way.

I think of trying to encourage other people that might be thinking of going into engineering not just women, but other people in general, but perhaps don't have come necessarily have the confidence. So losing those stereotypes would be massive benefits I feel if you're an engineer and you want to be an engineer, you don't need these flashy things that we have here. They're a great benefit, I freely admit it but anyone who's got a mind-set, and you can make your own 3D printer. You can make your own 3D printer for 50 pounds. You do not need to have something flashy, you just need the know-how and you need to be passionate about what you want to create and how to solve it. You can go make these items and then you'd have your own set of a bit of equipment that you've made. You know how to work, you know how to sign. That's making you an engineer full-stop. You've designed it, you built it, if you have the know-how or have the passion to go and research how to do it and there's no reason why you aren't already an engineer.

-End of opinion piece-

6. Women can’t reach the top jobs in engineering  

Of course, there’s work to be done: with more men than women entering the industry, it’s statistically probable that more men will climb to the top. But, given the same opportunities, women are just as capable of heading up projects, departments and companies within the engineering sector. Marissa Mayer was the president and CEO of Yahoo! between 2012 and 2017. Mary Teresa Barra has held the CEO position at General Motors Company since 2014 – and although she is the first female to head up a major global automaker, there are undoubtedly others in close pursuit!

Mary T. Barra Mary Teresa Barra is the Chairman and CEO of General Motors Company

7.  You can’t be an engineer and raise a family

Having children can be a challenge in any career, but with supportive employers and the right infrastructure, there is no reason why it should be harder within the world of engineering. Peggy Johnson is Microsoft's executive vice president of Business Development, after a 24-year stint working at Qualcomm – and she has three children, four dogs and a cat!

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