Will it take another world war to get more women into engineering?

Competent engineers are essential to the economy, the environment and the health of the nation - so why isn't more being done to encourage competent women into the industry?

By the time a child blows out the candles on their fourth birthday cake, they have already decided which jobs are for men and which are for women. Boys are fire fighters or builders, girls are nurses or teachers.

Tragically, children’s books and TV programmes, as well as many parents and school teachers, inadvertently reinforce these socially constructed identities due to their own lack of understanding and preconceptions.

Alarmingly a miniscule six per cent of practicing engineers in the UK are women, according to the Women's Engineering Society.

This is the lowest number in Europe. In comparison Sweden, a country more famed for its flat pack furniture than its rich engineering heritage, has four times more female engineers than us.

But when did Britain decide that women should not aspire to be engineers and help to change the world? And worst still who thought up the ludicrous notion that women would not make good engineers? The women of Great Britain have already proven that they can be outstanding engineers and run this country single handedly. Just 70 years ago, when the men left to fight in the Second World War, women went into factories and did, more than competently, the work of talented engineers.

Sadly, at the end of the war when the men returned, everyone went back to their so called "traditional roles" and many women who could have changed the world through the discipline forgot their true calling. Will it take another war to get women back into engineering? I hope not.

Disastrously, the field of engineering loses so many talented women to so-called "caring professions" because they want "to make a difference." Ironically, making a difference is the bread and butter of engineering and in today's world is vitally important for the future.

The Women's Engineering Society states that in 2011 an overwhelming 85 per cent of engineering and technology graduates were men. While in the same year 83 per cent of medical degrees were awarded to women. This year’s A level statistics also show that only 21 per cent of girls took A level physics, however, those that did outperformed their male classmates, achieving more top A grades.

The world needs more competent engineers – that is, more female engineers.

As we continue to live through difficult financial times, there are many other pressing problems that threaten our quality of life, such as global warming, the depletion of natural resources and health - to mention just a few. Engineers and scientists are the only people who can stop the halt the destruction of our planet, so what better way to show you care and make a difference than to save the world?

Many have written about the importance of raising and changing the profile of engineering. The Institute of Engineering said that we need at least 10,000 new engineers every year between 2012 and 2020 just to keep us afloat. Recently, Sir Richard Olver, chairman of BAE Systems and a fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering, also reflected on how the lack of engineers will result in Britain being ill prepared for the future. This is without doubt true. While the UK is struggling to recover from the recent recession, the number of professionals is falling.

Industry, academia and the government have made constant efforts to challenge preconceptions about what people continue to believe to be a male and "dirty" discipline. However, we should be desperate to educate parents and teachers about the value and impact of this profession, as well as, drastically change all information and knowledge that young children get from the moment they are born.

It is our duty, whether as a parent, teacher, guardian, or role model to inspire a future generation of Amy Johnsons and Caroline Hasletts to help make a difference and change our world.

Professor Elena Rodriguez-Falcon, Faculty Director of Women in Engineering at the University of Sheffield

An engineer analyzes radioactive nuclear fuels in Saint-Paul-lès-Durance, southeastern France. Photograph: Anne-Christine Poujoulat/AFP/Getty Images.
Getty
Show Hide image

An antibiotic-resistant superbug is silently spreading through UK hospitals

There have already been outbreaks in Manchester, London, Edinburgh, and Birmingham, but deaths are not centrally recorded. 

Lying in a hospital bed, four months pregnant, Emily Morris felt only terror. She had caught a urinary tract infection and it was resistant to common antibiotics. Doctors needed to treat it as it could harm the baby, but the only drugs that could work hadn’t been tested on pregnant women before; the risks were unknown. Overwhelmed, Emily and her husband were asked to make a decision. A few hours later, gripping each other’s arms, they decided she should be given the drugs.

In Emily’s case, the medicine worked and her son Emerson (pictured below with Emily) was born healthy. But rising antibiotic resistance means people are now suffering infections for which there is no cure. Doctors have long warned that decades of reliance on these drugs will lead to a "post-antibiotic era"– a return to time where a scratch could kill and common operations are too risky.

It sounds like hyperbole – but this is already a reality in the UK. In the last four years 25 patients have suffered infections immune to all the antibiotics Public Health England tests for in its central lab, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism has discovered.

While these cases are rare, reports of a highly resistant superbug are rising, and infection control doctors are worried. Carbapenem resistant enterobacteriaceae (CRE) are not only difficult to pronounce, but deadly. These are bugs that live in the human gut but can cause an infection if they get into the wrong place, like the urinary tract or a wound. They have evolved to become immune to most classes of antibiotics – so if someone does become infected, there are only a few drugs that will still work. If CRE bacteria get into the bloodstream, studies show between 40 per cent and 50 per cent of people die.

These bugs are causing huge problems in India, certain parts of Asia, the Middle East and some countries in southern Europe. Until recently, most infections were seen in people who had travelled abroad, had family members who had, or had been in a foreign hospital. The boom in cheap cosmetic surgery in India was blamed for a spate of infections in Britain.

Now, doctors are finding people who have never boarded a plane are carrying the bug. There have already been outbreaks in Manchester, London, Liverpool, Leeds, Edinburgh, Birmingham, Nottingham, Belfast, Dublin and Limerick among other areas. Patients found with CRE have to be treated in side rooms in hospital so the bacteria does not spread and harm other vulnerable patients. But in many of Britain’s Victorian-built hospitals, single rooms are in sparse supply. Deaths from CRE aren’t centrally recorded by the government - but it is thought hundreds have already died. 

Across the country, doctors are being forced to reach for older, more toxic drugs to treat these infections. The amount of colistin – called the "last hope" antibiotic as it is one of few options still effective against CRE infections - rose dramatically in English hospitals between 2014 and 2015, the Bureau has revealed. Colistin was taken off the shelves soon after it was introduced, as it can harm the kidneys and nervous system in high doses, but was reintroduced when infections became immune to standard treatment. The more we use colistin the more bacteria develop resistance to it. It’s only a matter of time before it stops working too, leaving doctors’ arsenal near-empty when it comes to the most dangerous superbug infections.

Due to a kidney problem, Emily Morris suffers repeat urinary tract infections and has to be hospitalised most months. Her son Emerson comes to visit her, understanding his mummy is ill. If she catches a superbug infection, she can still be given intravenous antibiotics to stem it. But she worries about her son. By the time he is an adult, if he gets ill, there may be no drugs left that work.

Madlen Davies is a health and science reporter for the Bureau of Investigative Journalism