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.
Last week, the continuation until at least the end of March of the lockdown, which has been in place in England since the start of the year, was announced. Many people are feeling jaded and worn out by the constraints and hardships imposed by the lockdown and are struggling to maintain their well-being and mental health. While others are trying to cope with the direct impact of the coronavirus on themselves and their family and friends. I have written before about the power of writing to transport me away from the pressures of everyday life [see ‘Feeling extraordinary at ease‘ on January 8th, 2020] and to help me order my thoughts [see ‘Thinking more clearly by writing weekly‘ on May 2nd, 2018]. These posts were inspired by reading books by Natalia Ginzburg and Sylvain Tesson. I have just finished reading ‘A Fly Girl’s Guide to University‘ edited by Odelia Younge in which Suhaiymah Manzoor-Khan writes about ‘times when my mental health was bad…writing became a solace and a friend’. In the context of institutional pressures, racism and exclusion, she describes writing about her feelings to help her to feel and listening to her own voice when nobody else would. I was reading the book to gain an appreciation of the experiences of woman of colour in a university; however, I think Manzoor-Khan’s words are relevant to everyone, especially when we are locked away and can only meet with much of our support networks via our computers and phones. Tim Hayward, in the FT in January 2021, wrote a deeply moving and insightful account of his experience of fighting coronavirus, including ten days on life support, and concludes by reflecting on how writing the article helped him handle the trauma. Of course, you don’t have to write for a newspaper, a book or a blog; although writing for an audience does focus your mind, you can write for yourself or friend and in doing so you can keep learning, take notice of your surroundings, and connect with people which will hit three out of five of the ways to well-being.
Lola Olufemi, Odelia Younge, Waithera Sebatindira & Suhaiymah Manzoor-Khan, A Fly Girl’s Guide to University, Verve Poetry Press, Birmingham, 2019
Tim Hayward, Covid and me: 10 days on life support, FT Magazine, January 22nd, 2021.