While many formerly male-dominated professions have been taken up by women in the last few decades, the UK still has one of the lowest numbers of female engineers in Europe. This is despite the industry crying out for engineers of every kind. HILARIE STELFOX talked to two young women who are bucking the trend and a senior female engineer who is making it her business to promote the profession to girls
THERE are around 90 students on undergraduate Juliette Ormian’s engineering course at Huddersfield University.
But she is one of only two girls.
In fact, her experience of being outnumbered is something that female engineering students have to get used to.
Huddersfield’s highly-rated School of Computing and Engineering has hundreds of undergraduates and post-graduates, but only 2% of those studying traditional mechanical and electrical engineering are female.
In the UK workplace just 9% of engineering professionals are women compared with 18% in Spain and 26% in Sweden. We have one of the lowest rates in Europe.
And yet opportunities for those with engineering degrees have never been better.
Gillian Murray, marketing communications leader at Huddersfield engineering company Cummins Turbo Technologies, said: “Attracting women into engineering is a challenge to the industry. There is such a shortage of engineers and we are effectively missing out on 50% of the workforce if we are only attracting men.”
She believes one of the main problems is that girls don’t understand what roles are available to them.
“People think engineering is just about mending boilers and wielding a spanner,’’ she said. “But there are all sorts of interesting engineering specialisms from materials to aerodynamics.’’
Juliette, 21, is in her second year of a Masters degree in engineering and says that her choice of subject raises eyebrows: “I work part-time as a waitress and when people ask me what I’m studying and I say engineering you can see they are surprised.”
But Juliette has been interested in engineering ever since joining the Army cadet force when she was 13.
She said: “I met a lot of REME (electrical and mechanical engineers) soldiers and spent a lot of time looking at the types of jobs they were doing and decided that I wanted to go into engineering.”
In order to apply to university she took maths, physics and electronics at A level.
At her school – Bradford Grammar – she was the only girl in the class for all three subjects.
“One of the things you need to realise about engineering is that there are no shortages of permanent jobs and you have a lot of choice after graduation,’’ she said. “With other degrees graduates might be struggling but that’s not true of engineering.”
Dr Leigh Fleming, a senior research fellow in mechanical engineering at the university’s Centre for Precision Technologies, agrees that engineering offers a great choice of career.
“Employers like engineering graduates because it is an applied science and they have lots of transferable skills,” she said. “Graduates can end up working in all sorts of fields, even in banking or management. It is a global profession and there are lots of opportunities.”
Dr Fleming is a Huddersfield engineering graduate and worked for an orthopaedic appliance company in Leeds before returning to academia.
Her colleague, Dr Violeta Holmes – subject leader for electronic and electrical engineering – is originally from Yugoslavia (now Serbia), where women are much more visible in engineering.
She has a degree in electronics from Belgrade University and says that one third of the engineering students were female.
“And that’s reflected in the workplace there as well,” she said.
Dr Holmes worked in a steel plant as a systems engineer before coming to Yorkshire to study for a masters degree in control engineering in Bradford and then a PhD at Huddersfield.
Her son has just completed a degree in engineering science at Oxford University and has walked straight into a job. Her daughter is sitting her AS levels this summer and also plans to study engineering.