I’m an engineer because I want to change the world

When I applied for my first engineering job, I lied.

Ellie Cosgrave“Why did you want to become an Engineer?” asked the grey-haired-60-something man from across the boardroom table. I had prepared my answer, and launched into a generic spiel I’d heard repeated plenty of times before: “I’m fascinated by technology” I said … “was addicted to lego” … “always taking things apart”.

In reality, I don’t remember ever playing with lego as a child, and all of my parents’ belongings remained resolutely intact. But I’d learnt that this was the answer people wanted to hear. It was comfortable, easy to understand, emotionally neutral.

Looking back, I’m disappointed that my answer was largely contrived and boring, but what saddens me most is that I was embarrassed by my real motivations. I’d felt that they were too idealistic, too naïve; too girly.

As an Engineer, being ‘girly’ is a challenge, it affects how people perceive you, it can undermine your work, and put you in uncomfortable situations. I learnt very early on to switch off that side of myself, to join in with the laddish banter and to let sexist comments slip under the carpet. I learnt how to fit in, how to succeed, how to be liked and respected. I was able to shut down the ‘girl’ in me, which I did without much awareness, and without realising the effect it was having on the rest of my life.

From a core-values perspective, this situation is simply unjust, but there is an economic argument for accelerating gender diversity too. The Engineering industry contributes £481 billion to the UK economy, and a recent Royal Academy of Engineering report concluded that the UK needs to increase the number of STEM graduates it is creating by as much as 50%. With the number of female engineering professionals standing at a measly 8%, and with 48% of state schools failing to send a single girl to study a-level physics, there is a vast cavern of lost talent. This is damaging to the career opportunities of our young girls, and by extension the UK economy.

If I could influence Government to take action on one issue to improve the lives of women and girls, it would be to support all young people who fall outside the macho norm of the engineering industry. We need to encourage them to study engineering, make them feel safe, and nurture them. Government should:

1) Support grass-roots organisations such as ScienceGrrl and STEMettes who are already tackling these issues, by providing them with political visibility and financial resource.

2) Provide informed, high quality careers guidance for young people, demonstrating the real face of engineering, and the real human impact that Engineers have.

3) Provide an open forum for discussions about gender diversity issues to take place and to be heard, and to facilitate inclusive and open dialogue on actions for change.

I believe that if government embraced these recommendations it would pave a sustainable path towards gender diversity in the engineering industry and create a workforce that is happier, fairer, and better able to tackle the world’s most pressing challenges.

So how should I have responded to that question from across the boardroom table? What was my real passion, my motivation? Well, it goes something like this:

“I want to be an Engineer because I want to change the world. I want to provide people with access to clean water, sanitation, education and healthcare facilities. I want to reduce our global dependency on fossil fuels, which is accelerating climate change, and that will disproportionately impact upon the most vulnerable communities. I want to provide great places for people to live in, to play in, and to succeed in. I want to be part of a visionary industry that can shift the goalposts of what is possible, and to work respectfully and creatively across disciplines, to provide real solutions to real human needs.”

National Council of Women logoIn the summer, the National Council of Women launched an essay competition: #SpeakOut Giving Young Women and Girls a Voice. The aim was to challenge young women to articulate issues that directly affect them and to give them a national and international voice. The title was simple: ‘If you could influence Government to take action on one issue to improve the lives of women and girls, what would it be?’

This question struck a personal note with me: I wanted to talk about my personal experience in the engineering industry, I wanted to get my voice heard, and I wanted more people addressing and debating these issues. The essay above was my entry.

I am very proud and privileged that my entry was selected as the regional winner in the 19-30 age category and came second nationally. I’m looking forward to continuing to work through ScienceGrrl to raise awareness and challenge ingrained gender stereotypes in the Engineering industry and elsewhere.

What do you think?