Posted on 31 Jan, 2019 by Rebecca Hooker
I've never really worked out exactly where my passion for engineering came from. I just know that I've always wanted to understand how things work.
And for women in engineering, there's no doubt that there are a few beliefs, misconceptions and stereotypes to contend with.
Some of them are widely held while others are based more on my own experiences.
So let's start with possibly the most common of those ideas - that engineering is a male dominated profession...
When I first started telling people at school that engineering was my chosen career path, the typical response that I got was one of surprise. I went to an all girls school and only two of us in the entire year were looking to go into a branch of engineering, so my career choice was certainly quite unusual at the time.
And in all honesty, my experience of the sector so far hasn't exactly disproved the idea of engineering being a boys' club. Ninety percent of the engineers that I've met and worked with are, indeed, male. Even on my university engineering course there are almost 200 people and only 10 of them are women.
My personal experience is also backed up by recent statistics from the Women's Engineering Society (WES) which reveal that just 15% of UK engineering undergraduates are female - and that women account for just 11% of the UK's current engineering workforce.
On the plus side, there is a concerted move by the UK government to encourage more young women into STEM subjects at school. And the number of women employed in engineering in the UK has seen a positive upward change in the last three years - up 2% since 2015.
But there's still plenty of work to be done if we want to think of getting anywhere near the levels of somewhere like India, where over 30% of engineering students are women!
So are all mechanical engineers just a bunch of introverted brainiacs who don’t possess the social skills necessary to hold a conversation?
While I’m not going to say that no one is like this (I have come across the odd one or two!) the majority of people I've met through my studies and work placements are more than capable of holding their own in a social setting.
And the reality is that good communication is an essential part of daily life for engineers. While our work is often complex and technical, not everyone we come into contact with comes from the same background or possesses the same level of expertise. So the ability to be able to communicate complex ideas in an accessible way is an essential part of the job.
Hands-on vs theory
When I was doing my research into engineering degrees, a lot of the brochures talked about how practical the courses were - with loads of group projects and lots of different hands-on opportunities to take part in. I'm a very practical person and I couldn’t wait to get stuck in! But the reality has been quite different - with a huge amount of theory to get to grips with.
Don’t get me wrong, we do still have practical projects, but for now at least these are heavily outweighed by the amount of theoretical study that we have to do.
Obviously I understand why we have to do the theoretical elements, it’s just they're not always as fun as the practical tasks.
This focus on theory has taught me an important thing though - that whatever course you choose, there are likely to be aspects that don't thrill you, but that are there to teach you valuable lessons.
A lot of people think that because I’m doing engineering I must be intelligent. Sure, there are specific entry criteria to be considered for a place on an engineering degree. But there are so many other people on my course who are so smart, I don’t even nearly hit the bracket!
The thing is that I choose to work hard - in fact very hard, harder than I thought I could.
And when I see that hard work pay off it gives me the motivation to work hard, again and again.
Engineers can only work in engineering
You might well think that a career in engineering only leads to one thing - becoming an engineer. But the thing that I'm loving so far about my degree is that there are such a wide variety of careers that you can potentially move into - from working as an aerospace engineer, a nuclear engineer or a production manager to delving into corporate investment banking or technical sales.
And so many of the skills that you acquire in your engineering degree are transferable such as being organised, learning how to keep good records and being able to communicate effectively through to understanding materials, thermodynamics, software packages, mechanical systems, manufacturing and so much more.
Having a wide skill set also means that if you’re not happy doing what you’re doing (and let's face it, we don't always know exactly what we want to do when we're 18!) you still have the opportunity to change career path without having to do a bunch of other exams. As someone who is not always the best at making decisions, knowing that there is flexibility in my choices is really great news.
If there is a final thing I can say about my experience as a female in engineering, it is that there are no wrong choices.
OK, you may feel unsure about some of your decisions, but everything that you do and every decision that you make will inevitably lead you on to discover what it is that you really enjoy.
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