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Science, Maths & Technology

Seven myths of being a female engineer

Updated Thursday 7th March 2019

There is a mountain of myths surrounding the engineering profession – particularly the role of women within the industry.

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 Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: 123rf 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.

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 Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: 123rf 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.

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 Copyright free image Icon Copyright free: Public domain 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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