On National Women in Engineering Day, I went to Laindon, Essex, to visit the Ford Dunton Technical Centre – a vast, sprawling complex, comprising large, gleaming buildings, more parking space than a Londoner could ever imagine, and a rather exciting-looking test track.
The day started with inspiring speeches from Barb Samardzich, Ford of Europe’s Chief Operating Officer and a Mechanical Engineer, and Graham Hoare, director of Global Engineering Operations, in which they announced an inaugural £1,000 Ford Prize for Women in STEM studies.
I then joined a group of apprehensive-looking school girls, who had been invited to attend under a ‘bring your daughter and one of her friends to work’ scheme, aimed at raising awareness of career opportunities for women in engineering. We were led by two engineers – one male and one female – on a tour of Ford’s impressive testing facilities.
I asked our guide whether she had encountered any problems working in such a male-dominated environment, and was surprised to learn that, on the contrary, she felt that her very conspicuousness, as a woman, was entirely advantageous: she felt her opinions and ideas were given particular credence, and that well-performing women tended to be more memorable to senior staff.
I was also interested to learn that she did not consider a passion for engineering to be particularly intrinsic in her; as a young girl she had been more interested in Barbie dolls, than in dismantling clocks or bikes, and had not considered a career in engineering until relatively late on. Having applied for a degree in maths, she was encouraged by her prospective university to apply for engineering – a piece of advice she has been intensely grateful for ever since.
Lack of awareness is a recurring theme among young girls; many don’t even consider careers in engineering to be a potential option for them. Chatting with the girls on the tour, the prevailing preconception was that engineering was a particularly ‘dirty’ job, involving grime-covered overalls, greasy engines and toxic fumes. Our tour guides at Ford were able to dispel these myths! Staff engineers were keen to emphasise their pristine (and very stylish) clothes and immaculate nails, and what came across very clearly was that engineering is not limited to ‘tinkering with engines’.
We were shown the environmental testing chamber in which cars are chilled to extreme temperatures or exposed to fierce wind turbines; the enormous 3D printers that generate working car parts; and the crash-testing department, with an exuberant demonstration of airbag deployment. Then we could drive around the test track with an electrical engineer, who explained how the electrical activity of the engine was monitored remotely, via a laptop. The sense of inspiration was palpable: girls who had been encouraged to come against personal misgivings exhibited a genuine enthusiasm for what they were shown, and many expressed an interest in applying for engineering degrees.
For the afternoon session, Ford had organised a ‘speed-dating’ event, with discussions facilitated by female Ford engineers and speakers on topics ranging from career development and routes into engineering, to maintaining a good work-life balance. Talking to some of the more senior women in the company, it was clear how well supported they felt in their roles. Professor Isobel Pollock, former president of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, attributed this supportive work culture to the employee-centric attitudes of most engineering firms, who recognise that accommodating the needs of workers actually drives innovation and productivity.
I find this to be in contrast to my own field of medical research. Although we have a similar dearth of women in senior positions, at PhD level the women actually outnumber the men. A profound ‘drop-off’ occurs during the progression from post-doctoral scientist to professor, due in large part to a system focussed entirely on ‘research output’. Saddled with enormous teaching responsibilities, scientists have to spend their evenings and weekends writing grants and research papers – conditions that force many women to have to choose between a research career and having children.
In engineering careers, the barriers appear to come earlier, but may be more easily surmountable. All the female engineers I spoke to were positively brimming with enthusiasm for their work, giving me a strong impression that the women who do make it through the doors, although few, are well supported and find it feasible to balance an exciting and rewarding career with a fulfilling family life.
The key is undoubtedly outreach initiatives – an area in which companies like Ford are blazing the trail. Having observed the positive impact of the day’s activities first-hand, I am confident that through better careers advice in schools, active recruitment for apprenticeships and internships, and ‘open day’ schemes aimed at demystifying careers in engineering, the gender imbalance in these areas could be improved within the next decade. I was hugely impressed by Ford’s efforts, and by the obvious passion of their engineers – so much so, that I was left wondering whether it’s too late in the game for a career change!
I’m a PhD student in Cardiovascular Research at King’s College, London. I’m passionate about scientific outreach. I think it’s really important to bring science and technology into public prominence, to share the exciting and important research that doesn’t necessarily make it into the tabloids, and also to give the public a realistic view of what can be achieved.