International Women in Engineering Day 2021 – G&H Group Engineers Speak Out

Foreword

In recognition of International Women in Engineering Day on 23rd June 2021, women in engineering and related disciplines from across G&H came together virtually to discuss what it means to be a woman in engineering in 2021.

They spoke openly and engagingly about the challenges they have faced and how they have overcome them, the support they have found both at G&H and elsewhere in their lives, the obstacles remaining in the wider industry, and the future they believe women engineers – and the girls aspiring to become them – have a right to attain.

This article is the fruit of that discussion. We hope it provokes thought, reflection, and further progress in our industry and indeed in our business, as G&H strives to deliver on our aim to hire and develop women with engineering and STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) qualifications and experience into all levels in the company.  

 G&H offer engineering apprenticeships in the UK, internships in the US and opportunity for engineering candidates in their early careers to extend their qualifications at different levels – from company-sponsored B-Eng degrees through Master’s and PhD programs, combined with coaching and executive mentoring.

These initiatives speak directly to the core G&H values of which we are so proud – Unity that inspires the diverse to work as one, Passion that amplifies talent, Precision that raises the bar, and People, without whom none of the above can be generated, channeled, or delivered.

Key takeaways from this article

We examine the career path of women in engineering and find that: 

  • Workplace gender prejudices in engineering are rarer now than in the recent past – but figures suggest they are far from extinct. 
  • Gender stereotypes combine with powerful social and mediatic factors to lead many girls and women to spurn engineering as a subject choice at school and a career choice later on.
  • The UK trails badly in the number of women in engineering roles compared to other European countries, but the US does not score highly either.
  • Mentorship, peer inspiration, and education and training opportunities are critical to gender equality in engineering, and G&H has a demonstrable track record of encouraging and funding such initiatives.
  • Women engineers are valued highly and treated equally across all G&H brands.

Woman and engineer – a career path strewn with challenges

‘Why should there even have to be an International Women’s Engineering Day at all? Why can’t it just be called ‘International Engineering Day’ and include women?’

This telling remark from Mechanical & Industrial Design Engineer Victoria underscores the reality of many women’s past experiences in the engineering discipline. The view in many quarters seems to have been that the concepts of ‘woman’ and ‘engineer’ were contradictory, and that they were therefore an anomaly to be clearly flagged, and treated with caution – or worse, with open disdain.

Karen, for example, a Market Applications Engineer whose career at G&H goes back ten years, and who is currently undertaking a Master’s degree at the same time as working full-time, recalls attending an engineering job interview with a number of male candidates earlier in her career. 

‘It was just assumed by all the men present that the job was going to one of them, and that I wouldn’t get a look-in,’ she comments. 

Biological prejudice: the body as a barrier

Faye, Manufacturing Lead at G&H in Torquay, UK, recalls that she was once refused a post as a dental nurse because of the risk of her becoming pregnant and having to take maternity leave, and reflects that the equally male-dominated engineering sector is unlikely to be entirely free of the same prejudices.

Process Engineering Manager Leslie, from North America, also takes up this theme. ‘Take a look at any engineering trade show stand,’ she says with a smile, ‘and what you’ll see is 100% white men over 50!’ 

The figures certainly bear out at least part of this assertion. In the US, the number of male engineers currently employed substantially outnumbers the number of women engineers. 

In the UK and Europe, the Women’s Engineering Society reports that only 12.6% of all engineers in the UK are women. Indeed, the UK has the lowest percentage of female engineering professionals in Europe, at less than 10%, while Latvia, Bulgaria and Cyprus lead with nearly 30%.  

Male vs. female – the weight of expectation

So, prejudice aside, does the sheer preponderance of men in the engineering sector put pressure on women in other ways?

Behaviorally, it certainly seems so. Amber, a Product Engineer who has worked at G&H’s fiber optic hub in Torquay for seven years and whose apprenticeship and degree were funded by G&H, sees a marked problem with this in the wider industry. 

She comments: ‘I worry that there is more of a stigma for women in management positions. Professional women can be seen as bossy or controlling, whereas a lot of that behavior is actively encouraged in men.’

The figures show how this duplicity plays out in reality. In the US, for example, men reportedly hold higher supervisory and management positions than women, whose promotion prospects are usually more limited.

Engineering preconceptions: where does the rot start?

Where, then, is this huge imbalance rooted? What is it that successfully channels so many boys and young men into engineering, but excludes girls and women so extensively?

Gender stereotyping from an early age, our panel found, has much to do with it. But worryingly, this seems to go much further than just ‘dolls for girls and toolkits for boys.’

It seems, in fact, that girls are in some way being locked out of, or discouraged from taking up, the fundamental creative play that is appropriate for their age, resulting in an absence of early understanding of basic, real-world engineering concepts.

Charlotte, for example, a physics graduate and G&H Value Stream Manager, has been involved in STEM outreach activities to local schools. 

One activity involved building a simple structure with Lego – but she was shocked to discover that, whilst the boys were totally familiar with the magic of the plastic bricks, many of the girls had clearly never encountered them. ‘We had to explain to them what they were,’ she says, ‘and show them how to put them together.’

She is keen to point out that once the girls had been taught what to do, they raced ahead of the boys, but the fact that girls of that age had never come across a Lego brick seems to betray a serious underlying failure in the encouragement and management of those girls’ educational and career aspirations.

What, then, is to blame for this?

Aiming low: a cultural expectation? 

For Materials and Engineering Manager Johanne, media plays a huge role in dampening female educational aspirations, and therefore in frustrating women’s entry into skilled and educated disciplines like engineering. 

‘Reality TV shows have created a culture of celebrity, and what many girls and young women now aspire to is simply to be famous,’ she explains.

Magdalena, a Romanian physicist and academic who transitioned into industry and has worked as a Product Engineer at G&H for the last two years, echoes Johanne’s point. ‘Too often,’ she says, ‘we hear girls saying of science and engineering that it’s “too hard”, and they say this to other girls too. Yet science and technology careers are interesting, international, multi-cultural, and often well paid!’

But it is undeniable that there are some powerful social and psychological forces at work here. Louisa, an Optical Shift Worker based in Ilminster, UK, who has come to G&H through an apprenticeship route, recalls the pressures on girls at school. 

‘Choosing to do something different to the others or something that’s not typically regarded as a subject for girls is difficult enough,’ she says, ‘but what girls often really fear is choosing to do something different, which makes them stand out, and then being seen to be really bad at it.’

Ultimately, this effect ripples through to higher education, too. As Karen notes, for example, she was the only woman on her university engineering course.

Caught between low expectations on one side, and fear of failure on the other, what hope is there, then, for the girls of today to strike out and become the women engineers of tomorrow?

Mentoring, nurturing, inspiring: watchwords for women engineers

Inevitably, what is needed here is environments that are receptive firstly to the idea that female engineering talent and aspiration can indeed exist, secondly to the idea that this talent is worth nurturing, and thirdly that – as Magdalena memorably put it – ‘Science and engineering have no gender.’

Without this combination, nothing changes. With it, radical evolution is possible.

Amber’s determination, for example, to find a career that was ‘fast-paced and encouraged me to think on my feet’ and gave her the opportunity ‘to develop solutions every day’, was met with a G&H-funded apprenticeship to degree level – and, by her own admission, this was the critical catalyst that spurred her on to greater things.

‘I wouldn’t have pushed myself to do the degree without the experience in the role, and the backing of the company,’ she says. ‘They gave me the chance to work on really interesting projects when I had little experience and made me truly passionate about engineering.’

For Senior Electronic Engineer Maryam, it was the variety of both medical and laboratory projects at ITL that attracted her to the role, but the culture in that division also showed itself to be refreshingly free of gender stereotypes. 

‘In the past’, she comments, ‘as a female technology specialist I had to work excessively hard in order to prove myself to my male colleagues. I am so pleased this is not the case in ITL.’

And for Russian-educated, US-based G&H Small Crystal Growth Engineer Anastasia, there’s a distinctly pragmatic quality to her comment. ‘In regard to equality at work,’ she says, ‘in my opinion we are a very balanced working site here in Cleveland, Ohio. We are all working together as a team to reach our goals.’

Supportive management and colleagues

Of course, as with most achievements in life, the presence of others who can mentor and inspire is indispensable – and this is particularly so when the challenges are compounded by ingrained attitudes in the wider sector that, as we have seen, can be obstructive.

For some of our women engineers, this inspiration has been personal. Magdalena, for example, recalls her father urging her to realize her potential in science because, as she puts it, he had quite plainly recognized that she was ‘more intelligent than my brother!’

A truly special teacher, as well, can often ignite the spark of success for an aspiring female engineer, as Amber notes:

‘I had a teacher who advised me to take an apprenticeship instead of pursuing a degree right out of school. He always told me about the importance of women in STEM roles and wrote me a letter of recommendation which helped secure my apprenticeship.’

For others, the motivation and guidance has come in large part from their G&H managers and colleagues. 

Karen, for example, names her immediate manager, who has encouraged and enabled her to study for her Master’s degree while working full-time. 

Faye and Charlotte both name a specific colleague and mention the business’s focus on mentoring and promotion from within, and on facilitating on-the-job learning and training.

US Project Engineer Kathy mentions the huge support that has been given to her in climbing a very steep learning curve, as she switched from another engineering discipline to G&H’s photonics specialism after many years working in other sectors.

Becky, who graduated with a chemical engineering degree and now works in Marketing within ITL, but previously left the professional world to raise a family, notes that she was ‘grateful for the chance to return’, and describes her re- entry into the organization as ‘very positive, with support from many.’

And, as Karen notes, the support is very much reciprocal. ‘The guys I work with are all really great’, she says, ‘and I have been doing training with them on the precision optics side, whilst they are doing training with me on the flats and prism side of the business.’

Where we are now – and advice for the future

When we asked the participants in our session what their advice would be to girls considering a career in engineering, the responses were emphatic and uplifting: 

‘Believe in yourself!’ ‘Don’t take no for an answer!’ ‘Speak up!’ ‘Don’t be afraid of the science!’ And rightly so.

 But when we asked them to describe how they, as international women in engineering, would describe their position and day-to-day experience within G&H, something very revealing emerged.

The words uttered were nothing to do with gender, or stereotypes, or prejudice, or preconceptions. Instead, we heard ‘a lifetime of learning’, ‘constantly learning’, ‘challenging and interesting’, ‘eager to learn more’, ‘lots to learn’. 

The conversation, it seems, is gradually moving away from the challenges of being a woman engineer, to the challenges of simply being an engineer.

And that, we believe, is an engineering milestone.