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.
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Forget fake news on Facebook – the real filter bubble is you

If people want to receive all their news from a single feed that reinforces their beliefs, there is little that can be done.

It’s Google that vaunts the absurdly optimistic motto “Don’t be evil”, but there are others of Silicon Valley’s techno-nabobs who have equally high-flown moral agendas. Step forward, Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, who responded this week to the brouhaha surrounding his social media platform’s influence on the US presidential election thus: “We are all blessed to have the ability to make the world better, and we have the responsibility to do it. Let’s go work even harder.”

To which the only possible response – if you’re me – is: “No we aren’t, no we don’t, and I’m going back to my flowery bed to cultivate my garden of inanition.” I mean, where does this guy get off? It’s estimated that a single message from Facebook caused about 340,000 extra voters to pitch up at the polls for the 2010 US congressional elections – while the tech giant actually performed an “experiment”: showing either positive or negative news stories to hundreds of thousands of their members, and so rendering them happier or sadder.

In the past, Facebook employees curating the site’s “trending news” section were apparently told to squash stories that right-wingers might “like”, but in the run-up to the US election the brakes came off and all sorts of fraudulent clickbait was fed to the denizens of the virtual underworld, much – but not all of it – generated by spurious alt-right “news sites”.

Why? Because Facebook doesn’t view itself as a conventional news provider and has no rubric for fact-checking its news content: it can take up to 13 hours for stories about Hillary Clinton eating babies barbecued for her by Barack Obama to be taken down – and in that time Christ knows how many people will have not only given them credence, but also liked or shared them, so passing on the contagion. The result has been something digital analysts describe as a “filter bubble”, a sort of virtual helmet that drops down over your head and ensures that you receive only the sort of news you’re already fit to be imprinted with. Back in the days when everyone read the print edition of the New York Times this sort of manipulation was, it is argued, quite impossible; after all, the US media historically made a fetish of fact-checking, an editorial process that is pretty much unknown in our own press. Why, I’ve published short stories in American magazines and newspapers and had fact-checkers call me up to confirm the veracity of my flights of fancy. No, really.

In psychology, the process by which any given individual colludes in the creation of a personalised “filter bubble” is known as confirmation bias: we’re more inclined to believe the sort of things that validate what we want to believe – and by extension, surely, these are likely to be the sorts of beliefs we want to share with others. It seems to me that the big social media sites, while perhaps blowing up more and bigger filter bubbles, can scarcely be blamed for the confirmation bias. Nor – as yet – have they wreaked the sort of destruction on the world that has burst from the filter bubble known as “Western civilisation” – one that was blown into being by the New York Times, the BBC and all sorts of highly respected media outlets over many decades.

Societies that are both dominant and in the ascendant always imagine their belief systems and the values they enshrine are the best ones. You have only to switch on the radio and hear our politicians blithering on about how they’re going to get both bloodthirsty sides in the Syrian Civil War to behave like pacifist vegetarians in order to see the confirmation bias hard at work.

The Western belief – which has its roots in imperialism, but has bodied forth in the form of liberal humanism – that all is for the best in the world best described by the New York Times’s fact-checkers, is also a sort of filter bubble, haloing almost all of us in its shiny and translucent truth.

Religion? Obviously a good-news feed that many billions of the credulous rely on entirely. Science? Possibly the biggest filter bubble there is in the universe, and one that – if you believe Stephen Hawking – has been inflating since shortly before the Big Bang. After all, any scientific theory is just that: a series of observable (and potentially repeatable) regularities, a bubble of consistency we wander around in, perfectly at ease despite its obvious vulnerability to those little pricks, the unforeseen and the contingent. Let’s face it, what lies behind most people’s beliefs is not facts, but prejudices, and all this carping about algorithms is really the howling of a liberal elite whose own filter bubble has indeed been popped.

A television producer I know once joked that she was considering pitching a reality show to the networks to be called Daily Mail Hate Island. The conceit was that a group of ordinary Britons would be marooned on a desert island where the only news they’d have of the outside world would come in the form of the Daily Mail; viewers would find themselves riveted by watching these benighted folk descend into the barbarism of bigotry as they absorbed ever more factitious twaddle. But as I pointed out to this media innovator, we’re already marooned on Daily Mail Hate Island: it’s called Britain.

If people want to receive all their news from a single feed that constantly and consistently reinforces their beliefs, what are you going to do about it? The current argument is that Facebook’s algorithms reinforce political polarisation, but does anyone really believe better editing on the site will return our troubled present to some prelap­sarian past, let alone carry us forward into a brave new factual future? No, we’re all condemned to collude in the inflation of our own filter bubbles unless we actively seek to challenge every piece of received information, theory, or opinion. And what an exhausting business that would be . . . without the internet.

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 24 November 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Blair: out of exile