It was International Women’s Day last week which caused me to reflect on parlous state of the engineering profession. Despite many initiatives and substantial expenditure of resources, the percentage of women in engineering in many Western countries has remained around 20% for most of my career. For instance, in the UK, women made up 14.5% of all engineers in 2021 according to the Women in Engineering Society and 21.8% of women work in the engineering sector; while in the USA women secured 22% of all Bachelor’s degrees in engineering in 2018 (wwwstemwomen.com). So, why have the many apparently well-supported initiatives made so little progress towards creating a gender-balanced profession? Perhaps, they are not as well-supported within the engineering profession as they appear to be; or they are the wrong solutions for the problem because we do not understand the problem. I suspect that both of these reasons for failure are relevant. The lack of progress would suggest that most men in engineering are not worried that their profession is unrepresentative of the society it claims to serve and if they are concerned then they do not understand the issues sufficiently well to be able see a viable solution. We can start to gain a better understanding by listening to women in science and engineering. This can be done in everyday conversations, by attending events such as those organised on International Women’s Day, or by reading about women’s experiences such as in ‘Invisible Women: exposing data bias in a world designed by men’ by Caroline Criado Perez or in ‘A Fly Girl’s Guide to University: being a woman of colour at Cambridge and other institutions of power and elitism’ by Lola Olufemi, Odelia Younge, Waithera Sebatindira and Suhaiymah Manzoor-Khan.
A couple of weeks ago, after reviewing one of my posts, my editor commented that I was repeating myself because I had already written on the same topic in an earlier post. I feel that is inevitable in a weekly blog which has an archive of more than three hundred posts – I am just not sufficiently creative to produce something original every week. Besides, maybe that’s not necessary. Anyhow, today I am returning to a theme that I have written about previously: the Treasury at the Weston Library in Oxford. It is a small museum with a rotating collection of treasures from the Bodleian Library, which until the end of February 2019 is on the topic of ‘Sappho to Suffrage: women who dared‘. As you might expect from the title, the oldest treasure in the exhibition are fragments of a copy from the 2nd century AD of one of Sappho’s poems. Sappho, who lived on the Greek island of Lesbos between 630 and 580 BC, is the first female writer known to Western civilisation. Her work was almost lost – the fragments of papyrus on display were found on an ancient Eygptian rubbish dump. Perhaps this is a good representation of men’s attitude to women’s writing because probably since Sappho, female writers have been neglected by publishers and male readers. As Nilanjana Roy has reported, publishing houses submit more books by male writers for literary prizes and book reviews tend to highlight more books by men than by women. In books written by women the gender of characters in evenly divided, whereas in those written by men, women only occupy between a quarter and third of the character-space and men tend to read books written by men. Perhaps it is unsurprising that many men are lacking in understanding and social awareness of half the population. Encouraged by my wife and daughters, this imbalance in my reading habits is being addressed by reading the books shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction each year during our summer holidays. I can recommend the 2018 winner ‘Home Fire’ by Kamila Shamsie – it’s very topical, will make you think and pulls you along to its dramatic final page. However, you should also read ‘When I hit you’ by Meena Kandasamy – it was both enlightening and shocking to me, and I was left wondering about the line between fiction and non-fiction. I also really enjoyed last year’s winner: ‘The Power’ by Naomi Alderman.
BTW – the thumbnail is a scan of postcard bought in the Weston Library showing a painting by their artist in residence, Dr Weimen He, who captured moments in time during the refurbishment of the library.
Last week I attended a one-day workshop for PhD students sponsored by Airbus. Most of the students produced a poster describing their research; and a dozen brave ones gave a three-minute presentation on their PhD thesis. It’s a challenge to describe three years of research in three minutes to an audience that are not experts in your specialist field. However, the result was an exciting and stimulating morning covering subjects as diverse as multidisciplinary design optimization and cognitive sources of ethical behaviour in business. The latter was presented by Solenne Avet who was the only woman amongst the twelve three-minute thesis presenters. The gender diversity was better for the other, longer talks with two women out of six presenters. Interestingly, the female PhD students were the only ones tackling the interaction between engineering and human behaviour, including system-human communication, collective engineering work and innovation processes, which I have suggested is essential for viable engineering solutions to our global and societal challenges [see my post ‘Re-engineering engineering’ on August 30th, 2017]. This population sample is too small to make a reliable generalization; however, it suggests that a gender-balanced engineering profession would be more likely to succeed in making substantial contributions to our current challenges [see UN Global Issues Overview].