In December 2014, Ayrshire College hosted a ‘Magnificent Women and their Flying Machines’ workshop with the Women’s Engineering Society. Forty second year girls from South Ayrshire secondary schools took part in activities aimed at encouraging them to think about a career in engineering. The school pupils took part in a range of practical activities, tried out the specialist equipment in the College’s dedicated aeronautical facility and heard from women who have built successful careers in the industry. The young women left the workshop more informed about engineering careers and more open to considering a future as an engineer.
Unfortunately, STEM – that’s Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics – subjects generally do not appeal to girls and take-up in subjects like physics at school or engineering at college has remained low for decades. Could that be changing? We hear from three women working in the College’s engineering department to get their take on girls and engineering. Marti Anderson is the curriculum manager for STEM at the Ayr campus, Carol Summers is an aeronautical engineering lecturer and Sarah Taylor is a lecturer in engineering.
Why are young women not choosing engineering?
Carol highlighted the problem the industry faces in attracting girls, saying “Part of the reason there are still very few females in engineering is that to go into engineering you really need to have done science at school. And, if you didn’t choose science in second year, this puts up a barrier early on. By the time they’re applying to college, if they haven’t got science qualifications, it’s normally too late.
“However, we are adapting our courses to open up opportunities for young people who haven’t studied science at school. In our Performing Engineering Operations course this year, as well as focusing on the critical hand skills in engineering, we’ve included maths and physics as well. So, if you come into college wanting to do engineering, but without the necessary maths and physics knowledge because you didn’t do these at school, then this is an alternative way in.”
Marti agreed and said that the way secondary school students think about their class choices is another important factor. She said “Physics is still seen as a male subject in schools, which is a shame as physics helps with things like radiography and optometrics. Taking physics at school would be an advantage for a range of careers, including engineering.”
And Marti firmly believes girls are suited to a career in engineering. “Girls and women are usually very good at hand skills, often very precise, so they would tend to have an advantage there. And basic hand skills, along with maths and physics knowledge, can be enough to get a job in the engineering industry.”
There were no such concerns for Sarah entering the engineering industry. She said “Engineering is something I’ve been involved in ever since I was little. My dad’s an engineer and my uncles are engineers. At first, I wanted to go into theatre lighting and took an engineering slant to understand more about how theatre lighting worked. I soon discovered that I enjoyed the engineering side of it more, which led me to go to university and achieve an engineering degree.”
Sarah is optimistic that more girls will follow in her footsteps saying “When I started in engineering the culture was predominantly male-dominated but I think that is slowly changing. Women engineers are showing what we’re capable of and that we are just as good as the lads. It helps that society’s changing, and there really is now no job that neither a male nor a female could not do. That’s helping to break down barriers.”
“At Ayrshire College, we have no barriers at all” Marti added. “When I was at school, I got the grades to go on to do sixth year studies but my teachers actually tried to stop me from doing it. I don’t think that would happen today.”
“I’m hopeful more girls will take up engineering if curriculum for excellence in primary and secondary schools is widening access as it seems to be. Things like the Magnificent Women event are fantastic. If we excite young girls at that age, show them the huge opportunities available in the engineering industry, and let them meet female students and female lecturers, they will be drawn in.”
What have you enjoyed about your career in engineering?
Engineering offers an exciting career path and Carol has travelled the world in her aviation career. “When I was doing my maths degree, I looked at lots of different options and decided that I wanted to build planes! I joined British Aerospace as a mathematical modeller and got the chance to travel around the world, meet lots of people and experience different airlines. It was very exciting and a great experience but you don’t get access to such great opportunities unless you knuckle down and do the studying.”
Sarah took a different path, teaching physics at secondary level before teaching engineering in the Royal Navy. She recalled her early years of studying engineering. “I’ve enjoyed being an engineer, but I still remember going back home when I was at university and someone asking what I was doing. When I said engineering they said ‘females can’t become engineers’! To me that was like a red rag to a bull and made me even more determined to show them and the rest of my town that girls can become engineers. And I did it, I proved them wrong!”
What advice would you give to girls thinking about a career in engineering?
“Go for it – if you enjoy it, then go for it!” said Marti. “Don’t be put off by the fact that it’s mainly boys who do it. Girls can do what they want to do, regardless of what anyone else thinks. What matters is that you do what you want to do.”
Carol advised “You’ve got to do the geeky stuff – you’ve got to do maths and you’ve got to do physics. What’s my advice? Do science and love science! Some people think it is a slog and, yes, to be successful you do need to work hard, but the rewards are great.”
Sarah added: “I think the biggest thing for girls is to ensure we give them the opportunity to show how they can get involved in all aspects of STEM – science, technology, engineering and maths. Give it a go. It’s not as hard as it looks and is really enjoyable when you get into it. It’s a very worthwhile industry. Just give it a go!”
RAISING ASPIRATIONS | INSPIRING ACHIEVEMENT | INCREASING OPPORTUNITIES