When I heard that I had been selected as one of the Women’s Engineering Society (WES) Top 50 Women in Engineering (WE50) 2022: Inventors and Innovators, I was absolutely delighted. To be included in a list of incredible women with extremely diverse experiences and achievements is inspiring for both me, and hopefully, the future of the engineering profession.
Telling people that I am a pharmaceutical engineer generally elicits one of two types of response – “wow that sounds interesting, tell me more…” or something which mentions making up numbers, ticking a box or other equally patronising statements.
My mission is to get more of the interested, rather than patronising responses. I’m madly passionate (verging on obsessed) about engineering, and particularly manufacturing. My children will vouch for that obsession, as a trip to the Lego House a few years ago resulted in them struggling to tear me away from the machine which makes Lego bricks – I was just too fascinated by the process and equipment.
According to WES, on International Women in Engineering Day (INWED) 2021, only 16.5% of engineers were women. This is a massive 83% increase since INWED was started in 2014, but this is still not enough. Every industry with engineers will benefit from a greater number of women engineers, as this brings different perspectives, diverse ways of thinking and overall, better business performance.
In the last 20 years, I have faced a lot of misogyny and unconscious bias, which has often been difficult to deal with. But with age and experience comes an unwillingness to stay quiet, and a need to challenge these behaviours to (hopefully) make a difference to the next generation of women engineers.
Perhaps the most enlightening experience was a few years ago, when I was working a weekend with my team of engineers to remove and replace part of a production line. Working on the shop floor is my passion – it’s all about teamwork and problem solving, which generally results in a good level of humour amidst the hard work. The morning started off with the usual light-hearted conversations and introductions with the specialist contractors who were supporting us by doing the physical removal and replacement of the equipment.
Realising that the Wimbledon final was on later that day, I wanted to get things going so I could be home in time to see at least the last few games. I took the lead on trying to get things underway, and one of the contractors asked me who was the boss. I answered that I was, but the question came again. After answering that I was the boss for the second time, I was met with the response (and I quote verbatim), “you can’t be the boss, you’re a woman.”
I laughed it off, we talked through what needed to happen, and the specialist contractors went off to get their equipment. Then came the puzzled looks and concerned questions from my team (incidentally all male). “Are you ok?”; “How is he still standing?!”. I was really confused – I had no idea what they were talking about, because to me, that kind of interaction was commonplace.
My team were shocked by the comments he had made, but even more shocked that it was something I dealt with (in various ways) on a very regular basis, as they had never experienced anything like it. Perhaps my biggest achievement that day was not getting the work done to be back home for Wimbledon, but making my team realise that they could call out that kind of behaviour even if it wasn’t directed at them, without undermining the woman who it was directed at.
That was one of many experiences that I’ve had during my career, and I know that I’m not alone when speaking to other women engineers. But how can we change the misogyny and unconscious bias? In my opinion, the best way to do this is to make it ok for anyone to call out this kind of behaviour so that it is challenged when it happens so that more and more people feel able to stand up against it. I am doing it for my younger self who wouldn’t have had the confidence to call it out and for the future generations of women engineers who will add so much to the profession.
WES does an amazing job to increase gender diversity in engineering, but I am sure that, like me, they wish that in 2022, this wasn’t something that still needed so much effort and focus.